Thursday, September 22, 2011

 

Birthday Books

A Good and Old Friend gave me True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey for my birthday last month. Was it ever good! As the reviewer put it, “you can pat yourself on the back for reading a clever book at the same as you’re titillated by adventure, intrigue, murder, love and lust.” Well, love maybe, but the lust is not particularly lusty, unless it’s a lust for stickin’ it to the the man, outlaw style. I loved the tragedy of Carey’s Kelly, how at every step he’s pushed along in a direction he’s not really choosing, from the time he becomes an outlaw’s apprentice to the assembly of a gang bearing his name, to the final, humorously political understanding that, whether he wants to or not, a leader must lead. I love how Carey constructed the painful, deep and damaging love of the son for his mother. I deeply admire the narrating voice—technically brilliant!

Regarding that last point, let me also recommend Inzanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Again, voice is right on and technically adroit, with a surface simplicity that demonstrates admirable restraint on the part of the author. I picked up the book because it’s a girl’s coming-of-age in the 70s, an era to which I feel a connection. There’s humour but never at the expense of our old, adolescent selves; in that respect, I might describe it as a girls’ Catcher in the Rye, except that a) a “girls’” anything seems to ghettoize (sad but true) and b) I despise automatic CitR references, which I believe most often come from people who didn’t read much fiction at all between the ages of 12 and 20, and don’t even read much fiction now. Let me say instead that if my daughter were being asked to read CitR, I’d give her this instead. If she were interested. Which she wouldn’t be.

Another reason I think of CitR is that the book was in the adult section. It was about a teen, and the coming-of-age did not involve a sexual relationship or massive drug use or cutting or self-damaging behaviour of any kind (though there is a scene with a babysitting client early on that is harrowing). It seems strange that all of that stuff can be found in YA novels (Wallflower, for example) and yet this is the book that’s on the adult shelf. Why? Because it’s too real, not black-and-white enough? Do we believe that teen readers don’t want to know about an ordinary girl with an ordinary, sadly drunken parent and a life that moves subtly from childhood to not-childhood? Or is it that the author herself, or her publisher, didn’t want to ghettoize this book? Hm.

Finally, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest by Amos Oz, an old-fashioned fable about secrets, animals, wilderness, community mores and such. It felt a little slow and repetitive at times, and the whole whoopititus thing seemed a little silly. I’d put this in a category with The Old Country and Fish (both of which I felt were more compelling): tales to read aloud, then let the kids lead the discussion, because you’d want to know what they take from it.

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