Sunday, March 30, 2008


Faith Matters

Spoiler Alert: The conference I am going to shortly is about faith and writing, so any reader who does not have a soul should skip a few paragraphs--or perhaps tune out altogether for the next month or so. I'm going to be talking about soul books.

In the interest of being a somewhat informed conference attendee, I am trying to read as many titles from the recommended reading list that I can get from the public library and that I haven't read already. So:

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
(Sorry, I returned it already and so I'm not sure if the title is right; but it was Roaring Brook Press, 2004 maybe). Touching and visually interesting (great use of foldouts) with a neat left hook at the end.

By Gary D. Schmidt, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Yearling ed., 2006). Good book, goes very deep into parent-child relations and hypocrisy and intolerance and bullying and community--and it's a beautiful story, and a lyric poem RE the sea and the coast and islands and whales, and Schmidt does the hard, right thing by his story in letting a certain one of his characters die. But I would like to see the original edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), because Yearling really cocked it up. The book is mostly definitely YA--heck, it won a YA prize. Yet here it is, digest-sized and with the most wrong cover art. It shows a couple of children, a blond white boy in a high collar and a pink-dressed black girl, in a boat together like a couple in a Hollywood, "straightlaced male meets free-spirited female and is liberated" movie. Which this story is not. It's about souls touching: Lizzie's and Turner's, Turner's and his father's. As for the whales: they are the music. In those whale encounters, Schmidt brings Darwin and the conservative Christian together and invites them to dance. If you can look a whale in the eye and connect, soul to soul, what does that say about your place in creation?

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer (Puffin ed., 2002; G.P. Putnam, 2000). Well written and definitely full of faith but not the kind that appeals to me overmuch. Rather the kind that appeals to Oprah's book club. I do not like the folksy American voice at all.

That's it for the reading-list books for now. Others I should mention:

Dillon Dillon by Kate Banks (Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). A ten-year-old boy spends a cottage summer processing something he has learned about himself. It was touching and good, but the loon stuff itched me like a woolen sweater. Loons don't nest in July, they nest in early spring. I couldn't suspend disbelief.

A Cabinet of Wonders by Renee Dodd (The Toby Press, 2006). The author spent a long time writing this, and did a lot of research. And fell in love with her characters. Those characters were for the most part interesting though they fell into some bad habits from time to time (the guy-only scenes seemed a bit belaboured). She settled them all well and honourably at the end, though.

Joseph Bruchac, Hidden Roots (Scholastic Inc, 2004). Elder Sister provided a good descriptor for this author: steady. He has a steady hand with fiction and I appreciate his subject matter, which is most often Native North Americans present and past. In this story, a boy slowly discovers his Indian heritage--as well as some shocking facts about it, and a surprising thing about his own, beloved "Uncle Louis."

Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2003). I confess I did not finish the book as I was impatient to get to the reading-list reading. But this is definitely in my "good short stories" category. The author, it appears, is Scottish and her stories often deal with Scottishness, perceived and actual. Yes, Loch Ness comes into it, quite humourously. I wonder what a Scottish reader thinks of these stories. Is part of their charm the "other" flavour?

Roddy Doyle, The Deportees (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). Stories about race in Ireland, adventurously written. Very enjoyable because Doyle begins and ends with character. I assume Irish readers enjoy them as they were published first in an Irish newspaper for new Irish (ie immigrants). But then, maybe part of their charm is still, in that context, the "other" flavour (see above).

Now, on to a few New Yorkers. Though this weekend I saw a romantic comedy set in New York and as it opened (the actors names layered PowerPoint-wise over scene of New York) I thought, "I'm getting tired of New York. Why can't it be somewhere else for a change?"

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Another Geraldine

Stop the Train by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford, 2001): What a thoroughly entertaining novel. Very funny. But, I sigh... I hope the right readers are finding it.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Vintage Canada ed., 2001): The title seemed less disingenuously ingenuous and more tiresomely truthful as I went on. In the last third, I was reading only about a paragraph per page. Judging by all the rave reviews, either critics enjoy being called motherfuckers or they think they are exempt. Of course, criticizing this book is like agreeing with that kid in Grade Four who endlessly said, "You hate me, don't you? Admit it," and if you said, "Yes, I hate you" you were proving them right, therefore given them masochistic satisfaction (euw) and if you said "No, I don't" you then had to be their friend. I'll just shelve this beside Don DeLillo in my mental library. Category: Whatever.

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Orchard Books/Scholastic Inc., 2005). Well, Islam certainly is the flavour of the month. A friend told me not to overthink this one -- that it was just meant to be fluff; but, excuse me, is this book not about a girl making a thoughtful decision and then grappling with the consequences? Yes, it has the form of a fluffy, getting-one's-knickers-in-twist teen girl comedy; but the reader is being asked to take the heroine seriously, and so I did; and I found the earnest religious explanations for why she can't kiss the boy she likes just as sad and wearying as I would in a novel about a radically chaste Christian teenager.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Writing Conference

Hurray! A friend drew my attention to a writing conference in April to which I am going. I'm going to have to read furiously to get acquainted with some of the talent speaking there.

A reader of this blog has marvelled at how much time I have to read. I'll remind her and whoever else needs to know that I read very fast. This book, for example: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin, 2007): it is 264 pages in 12-point type comfortable spaced, and I read it in about... hmm... 4 hours, tops. So, you see, it's not that I have so much time; it's more that I can cram so much reading into the time I have.

The WW was very fine indeed. I like this author--he's a solid, old-fashioned sort of writer (it's not an accident that he sets so many of his books in the past) of the sort that builds a character from the soul outward. This is not to say that his books lack appeal. Son is finding this book funny and engrossing. It's a snow day today and when I told the children they could stay home, his thanks were utterly warm and spoken from the depths of the sofa where he was already settled to read. Incidentally, Schmidt will be at the conference--yay!

Mother lent me Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb (pub info to come--I lent the book out again to a neighbour). I appreciated this book intellectually but not emotionally; there was more sociology in it than I like in a novel, for one thing. But the main problem for me was that thought there was lots of talk about the main character's love of prayer and her faith (Islam) but I couldn't feel it. It didn't get past my high internal threshold--my knowledge of how hard this faith is on women, my perception of the ignorance created by a purely Qu'ranic education. Did I miss it, or did the author simply not convey adequately what was beautiful and lovely in Islamic scripture? It should have come out clearly through her main character, given that very education.

I went looking for The Invisible by Mats Wahl (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000/2007). I don't remember why--well, because it's by a Swedish writer, but I don't know in what context it came to my attention. Anyway, it was interesting--written in a very flat, detailed sort of "police procedure" way, which creates a vivid picture of the landscape inside you. The story itself is not at all unsual or unique--it's an old modern story, about thuggishness with fascist pretensions, coming to a head in an isolated small town. Neither are the characters--the meticulous police officer, the bewildered mother of the bully, the brittle desperation of the victim's parents and the guilt-stricken girlfriend. Even "the invisible" idea isn't unique to me. But it all works together quite well. Apparently it's going to be made into a movie--whcih might actually be better than the book, if it's done right.

Finding My Hat by John Son (Orchard/Scholastic Inc, 2003) is one in a small series of "First Person Fiction", stories about the experience of being new to the US. It was good but oddly framed--it is, and isn't, autobiographical, about a Korean boy's growing-up years in various American cities.

As well as having read all the above, I have been listening to a novel on CD called On Beauty by Zadie Smith (pub info to come). As the reviewer on says, its a novel that reminds you why you read novels in the first place. Maybe I'll say more later--maybe I'll just keep this one inside. It's wonderful.

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