Greenwillow, 2010

Finished July 23, 2010

Genre: children’s fantasy with magic in the real world

I liked the cover design for this book with the magic spilling from the skylight as rainbow streamers, especially the way the designer took a blown-up portion of the illustration and wrapped it around the back cover and the flaps.  While I had the book open to read it, rainbows peeped out at me all around the pages.  (A further note on the cover–it looks to me like something is spilling from Aidan’s nose.  I know it is only magic sparkles coming from the glasses he is holding in front of his face.  Still, every time I glanced at it…)

This is worth mentioning, because streaming rainbows and chirping bluebirds of happiness is what it feels like to hold a NEW Diana Wynne Jones novel in my sweaty little hands.  Enchanted Glass doesn’t offer the complex plotting of some of her works that are geared for older readers (though in part that’s moot; all Diana Wynne Jones’ books have something for everyone), and there are a few loose ends, but I enjoyed the homey setting.  Books about people who inherit old, magical country houses full of old, magical stuff in English villages always make me jealous.  There should be more rich old magicians in the world, naming obscure distant relatives as heirs.

Andrew inherits Melstone House from the grandfather with whom he spent summers as a boy.  This means he can retire from his university teaching job and finally write the history that’s been on his back burner.  The book Andrew means to write is one of those loose ends I was talking about; because really, though Andrew is slow to realize it, Melstone isn’t just an inherited house, it’s an inherited post.

I had a couple of different favorite things about Enchanted Glass, and one of them was how the magic comes slowly on Andrew.  Diana Wynne Jones perfectly conveys the way you can forget things from childhood without really forgetting them; the feeling of things you remember without exactly remembering.  Sorry that is vague, but if you want to know what I’m talking about you should read the book!

Andrew is both admirably businesslike (no stagey skepticism, which I hate) and sweetly surprised as he rediscovers the magic around Melstone House.  A sense of wonder for grownups, in a book for kids that is also about about a grownup growing up–don’t you just love that?  And what other writer could pull it off so well?

I suppose his age is why I find Andrew more interesting than Aidan, the orphaned boy who shows up on Melstone House’s doorstep with magical peril on his heels.  The simple fact that I am no longer 12 (or 16, or 20, or even 30) means I can sympathize with a middle-aged professor more than a kid.  Aidan is nice, and it’s easy to get into his head, but he is definitely more of a children’s-literature-style protagonist than a young adult one.  He’s reflective, but not complicated.  His problems are pretty straightforward.

Which brings me to my other favorite thing about this book.  Melstone is what’s referred to as a “field-of-care.”  When Aidan and Andrew go out to walk the boundary (borders and boundaries are a theme in lots of Jone’s work, if anyone wants to jump in and discuss), we get Aiden’s kid-like take on it:

When there were no cars coming either way, Andrew led the way down the bank, to cross the road just beside the dip where the ghost had been.  Going as slowly as he dared, in case someone was speeding, he wove up and down the slight rise in the road, until he had fixed in his mind what the boundary felt like.  The side where the field-of-care was felt like what he now thought of as normal: deep and slightly exciting.  The other side–

“Oh!” Aidan exclaimed.  “It’s all boring and dangerous on this side!  Like standing on a runway in the path of an airplane.  Flat, but you’re lucky you’re not dead.”

This passage, and others, had me in raptures.  In giving us the magician’s perspective on the magical vs. the non-magical, Jones is also giving us a perfect metaphor for literature vs. real life.  Entering the world of a fantasy novel as fine as Diana Wynne Jones’, whether writing it or reading it, is much like entering a field-of-care where everything is “deep and slightly exciting.”  Take it that way, and he dry humor in “flat, but you’re lucky your not dead,” as an assessment of real life: priceless.  And Jones all over!

If all this sounds good to you so far, and you can get behind the idea of cauliflower casserole as a tool of revenge, a giant zucchini as a deadly weapon, giant vegetables (and giants in general), I’m sure you will enjoy this book.

First published UK 1967, US 1969
Finished: early May, 2010
Source: Book blogs: Things Mean a Lot and others I forgot to write down
Genre: ?
On The Scales:  Hard to tell.  Depends how on-purpose it was.

I have seen the fatal flaw in my blog-a-book-a-day plan for July.  I keep reading them.

I have been stacking up everything I’ve read by the computer and the pile isn’t getting any shorter, even though I have replaced some of the actual books, like The Magic Toyshop, with pieces of paper scribbled with their titles.

I just now finished Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, and I was gratified to see that she has written a book on Angela Carter, because it must have been a match made in heaven.  I want to read it.  My first Carter has left me even more interested in what other people said about her than what she herself had to say in her fiction.

The Magic Toyshop is a lurid gothic fable of orphans, childhood, male and female power, creativity, class, and sex.

I’m all for lurid gothic fables, brainy books, and neglected classics.  This in mind, and having quickly discovered Carter’s novel was compulsively readable, I expected to have a strong positive or negative reaction to it.  My reaction was more of a mild positive.  The gargoylish awfulness of life in the toyshop–a rotation of claustrophobic misery and heavy meals–and the crowded, compost-y layering of subtle (and not so subtle) symbols and images both contributed to my engaging with it at a bit of an emotional remove.  I think her style of writing did that, too.  It is finely honed.  The book read like something thousands of undergraduates would one day be encouraged to dissect into millions of pieces.  And her post-pubescent main character initially copes with her situation by going passive.  As reader, I followed her example.  It was that or shake the girl.  Then she copes by falling in love with the Irish.

Falling being the operative word.

With her upbringing, Melanie didn’t really see any more active options.  Or at least this is what I think we were meant to believe: that she was so sheltered, it didn’t occur to her that there were outside agencies meant to prevent her despotic artist uncle from doing things like beating his apprentice/brother-in-law, not sending his niece and nephew to school, and keeping his family in a state of near-suicidal fear.  But this was the 60’s.  In London.  And yet she seemed to have grown up in the 1930s.  When I started the book, and was making my way through her virgin-in-the-tower budding-sexuality sighings in her parents country house, I was sure it was set in the 30s.

I want to say it was a bit much, but when the whole book is meant to be a bit much…

I wasn’t looking for realism, but The Magic Toyshop was playing around (on purpose) with a framework of realism, so it kept setting up oddly conventional expectations, fulfilling them, then taking a dive back into the absurd.

I was struck by her many descriptions of how ripe the unwashed grown Irish boys were.  The stink meant something. It was supposed to be sensual?  (The combination of “dirty” and “Irish” always sets off a few alarm bells.  Or maybe she was playing with negative stereotypes as well.)  But then if you switch over to realist mode, you have to admit that really, truly bad body odor is the one thing lust can’t conquer.  Had Carter ever been stuck in an enclosed space with an unwashed teenaged boy for weeks on end?  Hard to think it.

Disclaimer: I’ve seen reviews of this book on several blogs I enjoy.  I haven’t read them.  At first I didn’t read them because I didn’t want to risk a spoiler.  Later I didn’t read them because I knew I was going to do some nit picking here. I expect some of the nits I pick will be things other readers particularly liked about this book.  I wanted to be sure you know: I’m not responding to your reviews contrary-wise.  Just being my nit picky self.

Turner neophytes: No spoilers.  Read with confidence.

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished: late April

Genre: YA fantasy that reads like historical fiction

On the Scales: middleweight

Inside the room, opposite the glass doors, were carved wooden ones that remained closed in all my visits.  I had no idea what might be beyond them, probably because I had no interest.  Everything I desired was in the room with me.  Between these doors, and on  every other space of wall, were shelves for books and scrolls and packets of papers and every kind of writing you can imagine, even tablets impressed with minute scratches that I not only knew were writing but could read, by the magic of dreams.

You may be shocked to learn how badly things have gone for Sophos since we saw him in The Thief.  A quest for a magic talisman is just the thing to set a boy on track, isn’t it?  And he’s still got the Magus, hasn’t he?  But as so often happens after adventures, Sophos’ home is still what it was when he left it.  Life remains a series of humiliations for the worst-case-scenario back-up heir of a petty king.  Now in his late teens, with the Magus’ excellent education under his belt, is it any surprise that Sophos’ coldly reasoned self-knowledge has hobbled his spirit?  Failure is so inevitable he hardly bothers about it anymore.  Sophos is a poet and thinker rather than a bully.  In Sounis, bullies make good rulers.  Sophos father and uncle are bullies.  Their noblemen are bullies who have to be bullied to be kept in check.  Sophos’ sword master is a bully, too.  He is surrounded by them.  He suffers them in shamed silence.

Ah ha!  But in Megan Whalen Turner’s world, rulers must rule whether they are suited to the job or not!  This is what creates the dramatic tension in her books.  For the kings and queens who maintain the delicate balance of power between the Classical Greek-themed kingdoms of Sounis, Attolia, and Eddis–with the Medes looming on one side and the occidental kingdoms on the other–the personal and the political are always intertwined.

As soon A Conspiracy of Kings began, I could it was going to take a big jolt to shake Sophos out of his rut.  In fact, it took slavery and a third of the book.

This was the third of the book I enjoyed.

Now, in the eyes of Ochto, sitting on a stool by the door, slurping his own soup, I was no different than any of the men around me.  My freedom was like my missing tooth, a hole where something had been that was now gone.  I worried at the idea of it, just as I slid my tongue back and forth across the already healing hole in my gum.  I tasted the last bloody spot and tried to remember the feel of the tooth that had been there.  I had been a free man.  Now I was not.

To explain why this novel disappointed me so, I will have to explain why I think Megan Whalen Turner’s skills and sensibilities as a writer are on a par with Ursula Le Guin or Katherine Paterson–far exceeding (with the exception of Elizabeth Wein) any other American author of her generation whose books are marketed for children and young adults.

So here goes.

Imagine a mystery in which no crime was committed and no detective solves it.  There are no red herrings.  In fact, the author leaves no clues.  The characters leave them instead.  I say the characters rather than the author because–unlike a mystery novelist–there is no catching them out, no learning their game. They aren’t playing one.  They’re living their lives as they find them.

Until you learn to track these characters’ emotions and motivations like wild animals in a forest, you will feel like you are just reading a “normal” fantasy adventure–a children’s story.  The scenes and pacing will be familiar.  You will recognize the cast at a glance: impatient scholar, bluff soldier, haughty noble son, weakling.  Amazon.  Trickster.

I was lying when I said the characters aren’t playing a game.  They are playing Turner’s game!  By submerging her construction so completely in her characters and setting, Turner plays the deepest game of all.  Chances are you won’t even see it until the story is over and the book is shut.  If you are lucky, you’ll be left with a strange, rubbing-your-eyes feeling that you missed something because . . . you did.  Everything was a clue to a deeper emotional reality.  Every choice of words, every gesture, every odd detail you just put down to atmosphere was part of the overall construction.  Then, as though a ruined temple had just risen out of the sea, you will begin to see Turner’s genius.  You will marvel that she was able to build this huge thing, and at the same deploy her characters so confidently and compassionately to do all the work of hiding it: secret agents in stock-character disguise.

Your discovery will be all the more delightful if you realize that she has chosen to build her temple inside a young person’s novel not for the shock value of the contrast between big ideas and little heads, but because she truly respects the form.  She didn’t see its conventions as a handicap; they were a natural set of tools for her as a writer.  It didn’t seem at all strange to her to build her temple on Atlantis where it would sink beneath most grownups’ notice.

The problem with builder-architect type authors is that their work takes an enormous amount of energy and focus.  Contrast this with yarn-spinning authors, with the literary equivalent of amateur carpenters (there are a lot of these), or even authors who just sit around playing Sim City.  If an author sets out to hammer up a tool shed of a book and things go badly, chances are they’ll still end up with a tool shed.  It may be leaning sideways and there may be gaps between the boards, but it will keep the rain off their tools.  If an author runs short of focus or energy when she is trying to raise a temple out of quarried stone. . .

Four books take place in Turner’s world of The Thief.  The first two, The Thief and The Queen of Attolia were completed buildings, the second two, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings were construction sites.  Right now I’m trying to figure out how a writer for whom I have such profound respect could have written two books that never came together, when her first two books were all about things coming together.

In The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, quite apart from the hidden structure of the story and hidden depths of the characters, Turner handles the interplay between love, friendship and statecraft with a conjuror’s lightness.  Because this kind of close interplay is peculiar to the “time” she’s writing about in her fantasy world, pulling it off requires a firm–even academic–sense of history most fantasists lack.  In the both The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings the political situation is more settled.  The stories concentrate on the personal burden of rule and the social forces that determine the success or failure of a head of state.  I don’t think Turner’s history failed her in these recent books.  Rather, I think her careful creation of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis as realistic ancient kingdoms forced her kings and queens into such tight corners of royal responsibility, they had no more room to maneuver the plot.  Now the derring-do is done, how can they break out?  How can they surprise us?  How can they turn on a dime and change the whole story?

I see Turner trying to solve this problem with her naïve first-person narrators.  The young palace guard Costis watches events unfold in The King of Attolia, providing a sense of dramatic irony (we know something is up that he doesn’t; we just don’t know what it is), and in Conspiracy of Kings, there is Sophos.  It isn’t enough.  Sophos may be at the center of political events, but because of his deliberate intellect and morals, there is really never any question of what he’ll do, only what will happen to him–and by the second part of the book, we are no longer in much doubt about that.

Gen and Attolia were capable of anything.  Sophos is another breed.  That doesn’t make me like him any less, but it does make it necessary to write him as the hero a different kind of book, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen with A Conspiracy of Kings.  Turner’s trademarks are her reversal and her reveal.  Whole interpersonal crises turn out to be edifices of deceit.  Whole characters.  Whole strategies.  Whole relationships.  The two reveals in A Conspiracy of Kings–the contents of a heart, and the contents of a box–were quite small and forced.

The prologue in A Conspiracy of Kings hinted at the possibility a much greater reversal, like the ones in The Thief or The Queen of Attolia (think Judas kiss).  It would have booted Sophos off center stage, which seemed unfair after all he’d suffered, but halfway through the book, I was still trusting her to have something so amazing up her sleeve that it would make the odd switch from Sophos’ first-person narrative to an authorial third-person narrative worthwhile.  The third-person section takes place entirely in Attolia’s palace, and features cool, uninformative descriptions of political negotiations with a couple of cryptic forays into the Queen of Eddis’ head.  It was not compelling reading.  I couldn’t believe that Turner would mark time so awkwardly unless it was for a good reason.

The reversal never materialized.  Changing the narrator was a big mistake.  It had the same effect as ripping a microphone out of Sophos’ hands when he had just started telling his story.  It was an even bigger mistake to suddenly give it back to him for the last part of the book.  At that point we are shown how it was all part of the plan, but in my opinion the plan was too unformed to be worth the stylistic bumps.

Perhaps if Turner had taken this book through more drafts it would have turned out quite differently.  I can think of several versions encompassing the same characters and events.  For example, Sophos could have been a truly naive narrator–an imperiled pawn as he pleads his case in Attolia and the threat of the Mede slowly materializes on every side.  Or she could have focussed on the military campaign.  Instead of a book standing still it could have been a book in motion, with the rulers frantically massing their troops and acting out their personal dramas on the fly.

My vote would have been to trust Sophos’ voice, trust him to carry the book, and let him spend most of it as a slave.  There’s no reason he couldn’t have stepped up to his responsibilities while he was still in captivity (or later pretending to be, as at the Baron’s banquet).  A slave moved to another household, perhaps?  Taken along on a trip?  This would have been a good way to put Sophos’ inner transformation at the center of the story and add a little much-needed intrigue.  I believe the other characters could have fallen in line with the slightly altered plot, and perhaps grown in some surprising ways themselves as a result.

The strongest conventional fantasy element in Turner’s books are her gods.  They are subtle: just a whisper of the supernatural that raise the moral stakes and clarify the inner lives of her characters.  Sophos dreams of the library in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review.  With his past life buried in days of mind-numbing labor, Sophos’ intelligence bursts out in vivid dreams where he argues with his new “tutor” amid the books of the library.

She was amused by my interest in the system of natural categorization that the magus had taught me.  I explained the importance of understanding how things are connected.

She only smiled at my earnestness and said, “Everything is connected, Bunny, to everything else.  If a man tries to transcribe each connection, thread by thread, he will only make a copy of the world and be no closer to understanding it.”

I am afraid Turner got a little lost in her own connecting threads.  The dream-tutor is a beautiful concept she used only briefly, for a specific purpose, before racing on to other things.  Sophos could have learned more from his tutor.  Their talks could have been the mortar that stuck the story together and let it stand whole.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
first published in UK, 2001
Margaret K. McElderry of Simon and Schuster, 2002
Finished: late February 2010
Source:  Nymeth’s blog and Jenny’s Books
Genre: Children’s or Young Adult fiction

Several of you spoke up for a review of Saffy’s Angel when I did my Reader’s Request post, in which I mentioned that I hadn’t enjoyed this deserving book much because “it poked a stick in all my childhood complexes.”

Well, not quite all, as there are far too many of them for one book.  But how I disliked disliking it!  Do I get any points for that?  Such a disappointment to be barred from the Hilary McKay fan club.  Saffy’s Angel is just the kind of story I usually love: a British children’s novel bound to confuse American publishers.  See, American book marketers have a lot of trouble understanding kids as thinking human beings, because they are also a dragon’s hoard of potential cash, to be handled with kid gloves.  Saffy’s Angel is heavy with everyday British cultural references, and (gasp!) the action isn’t centered exclusively around a 8-12 year old protagonist.  There are grownups with grownup concerns as well, and teenagers, but no easily pinned-down “teen issues” that would place it in the YA category.  “ARRGGH!  HOW DO WE MAKE THIS SEEM LIKE HARRY POTTER SO WE CAN SELL IT?”

My impression of Hilary McKay is that she is old school, going back to the conventions (if you can call them that) of Penelope Farmer, Mary Norton, Phillipa Pearce, Barbara Sleigh, K.M. Peyton and others: a particular kind of middle-20th-century slice-of-life British children’s writing.  (The other side of the coin would be outright fantasists like Peter Dickinson and Joan Aiken.) Reading Saffy’s Angel, I felt I could be reading a book written 50 or more years ago, instead of just 10.  At first I assumed McKay was setting her story in the 70’s or early 80’s:  no computers, no saturating pop culture.  No television that I can recall.  I was quite startled when cell phones were used and I realized the book was meant to be contemporary!

What I’m saying, though, is that this didn’t bother me.  The reverse: the atmosphere was familiar and comfortable.  I grew up on British children’s books in yellowed dust-jackets.  I should have been able to settle down right away and enjoy her fine writing and deceptively broad-brush character portraits.  Like an expert painter, McKay has the talent for rendering whole, vivid people in a few strokes.

Maybe that’s the problem.  If the Cassons had felt less real, there would have been less cognitive dissonance when I entered in their world.  My family was to the Cassons what The Simpsons were to The Andy Griffith Show.  What The Addams Family were to The Wonder Years.

Parallels between me and Saffy

Parent died when tot: check

One current parent arty and spacey: check

Lots of half-siblings (Saffy’s siblings are her cousins, which I find interesting): double check

In hopelessly chaotic house: check

I mean, like, you can’t actually do anything in it, unless you perform pile archeology first, and then there’s no room to do it in because you spread out the piles: check

A feeling of not fitting in with the rest of the family: check

These basic similarities contributed to a creepy sense that Saffy’s experiences were a twisted-alternate-universe version of my own.  Or I should say, MINE was the twisted alternate universe, though it’s surprisingly hard to wrap my brain around that.  So many things were shown as loving and jolly for Saffy that were not loving and jolly for me.  And even when things weren’t strictly jolly in the Casson family, they were at least funny.  One sensed that they were just one step away from being able to laugh over it all when it was over, or else cry over it and comfort each other and move on.  Even the jerky father was no big deal.  Everyone knew that he was a jerk (except Eve, maddeningly) and went on from there.  Their interconnected, benign relationships let them present a unified front to their problems.

What’s not to love in an example like that?  Well, for starters, I don’t really believe a family like Saffy’s can work that way because I’ve never seen one that did.  O me of little faith.  I probably wouldn’t even believe in a happy artistic family if I saw it; if I were Doubting Thomas in the Bible and Jesus showed me the spike holes in his hands, I would have scratched at them and said, “What’s this?  Some kind of paint?”

Even the Wyeths had their dark side.  Even the Cheaper by the Dozen family (By glaring omission.  Ask me.).  I have the same reaction as a victim of violence who sees violence glamorized, when I see dysfunction jollified.  It makes me want to tell the world dreary things like:

Eccentrics are exhausting, both to be and to live with.

Sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in to your family because you don’t fit in.

Sometimes no one will support you in what you need, even when you are young.

Not all bossy, manipulative little girls are good-natured dictators; they are not an ideal place for the inexperienced to seek bosom friendship.

Messy/dirty houses where nothing gets thrown out aren’t funny in real life–not even darkly funny.

Hoarding is often a symptom of mental illness.

Spaceyness can be a voluntary offensive and defensive tactic.  It is not a necessary by-product of an artistic nature, to be coddled.

Of course the world already knows all these things, so no need to tell it.  And there are tons of books about miserable childhoods in intellectual / artistic families, so kudos to McKay for writing something different.  I did laugh at the signs in the car.

read by Lincoln Hoppe

Listening Library, Random House, 2009

Finished: March 19, 2010

Source: Jenny’s Books

Genre: YA issues novel tackling multiple issues

On the Scales: Lightweight

Hi, commenters.  Reader’s Request next time.  I wanted to post this one while it was fresh in my mind.

Marcelo is looking forward to senior year at Paterson, his private school.  In the mean time he has lined up his summer dream job at Paterson’s therapeutic riding stables.  Marcelo’s father, a high-profile patent lawyer, thinks Marcelo should switch to public high school because it will make him act less weird if he rubs elbows with normal high school kids.

So Papa Arturo exercises the eternal parental prerogative.  He proposes a “deal” with Marcelo that is no deal at all: Marcelo must spend the summer working in Arturo’s Boston law firm instead of at the stables.  If Marcelo refuses to do this, he must go to public high school in the fall.  If he works at the law firm and his performance meets Arturo’s standards, Marcelo may choose where he goes to high school.  If his performance at the law firm doesn’t satisfy his father, he must go to public school.

Beside the fact that it is rigged, I had several objections to Arturo’s deal.

1. As if, by senior year, there was enough time left for it to make any material difference where Marcello went to school!

2. Arturo springs his proposal on Marcelo a few days before he’s arranged for him to start work at the law firm, which seems devious and self-serving.

3.  Correct me if I’m remembering this wrong, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned what (or if) Marcelo would get paid?  What’s more real world than a paycheck?

I liked this book, and eventually found Arturo a sympathetic character, but I just hate it when parents do that thing. Better to say, “You’re going to work at the law firm this summer,” than to frame your command as a bargain between equals.  That’s an abuse of power.  If you exercise your right to have your will over child’s, but frame it as something else, you are taking away your child’s right to protest your decision and try to change your mind.  And Aurora the mom is not much of a mediator.  So, not an auspicious beginning, for me.

The audiobook reader was decent but really slow.  No doubt this was Lincoln Hoppe’s interpretation of Marcelo’s character, but for me a laggy reading widens the gap between reading silently and reading aloud even further.  It obscures the author’s pacing–so important in a YA-length novel.  I also think it was just a bad choice in terms of character.  Marcelo has something resembling mild Asperger’s, but while the plot hinges on this fact, Marcelo coping with his brain stuff is not the point of the book.

Verbal tics aside, Marcelo could be any sheltered, odd teenager.  His hurdles could be anybody’s, growing out of innocence.  This made Marcelo in the Real World different from “into the mind of an Autistic” type books I’ve read.  For me, the best way to approach it was not to think of Marcelo as someone with a specific condition.  Marcelo himself muses about how he feels when people try to find a clinical term for What He’s Got.  Among other things he feels guilty because he understands the suffering that goes with more severe Autism, because he’s seen it at Paterson–as if he were claiming a pain to which he had no right.

His concern is typical of mature, balanced Marcelo, whose “special interest” is pondering religious and moral questions.  Marcelo is a likable guy even at Lincoln Hoppe’s snail’s pace.  He was even kind of funny–it didn’t come across in the audio version, but I bet it would have done in print.

Many of Stork’s readers will know a teenager who, like Marcelo, is not in step.  My half-brother is one of them.  I thought Marcelo’s insider-but-also-outsider descriptions of “special interests” and “internal music” were compassion-inducing alternatives to obsessing, perseverating, and zoning out.  When you have a real reason to use them, terms for Asperger’s-type behaviors quickly become tinted by the frustration and anxiety of the helpless observer.  Marcelo is like a local guide: great at showing us how a place might inconvenient for tourists but has its compensations for the people who live there.

Then again, Marcelo is imaginary.  I’m wary of wish-fulfillment endings when I read books featuring characters with cognitive or developmental disorders.  They are so easy for authors to fall into.  Stork dodged the bullet because he was able to convince me Marcelo’s difficulties were moderate enough that he might actually hit on an achievable life-plan while he was still in high school.  I was also willing to accept that he was personally appealing enough to find the right person and right place to help him make those plans a reality.  But it was a close call.

I first heard about Marcelo In the Real World at Jenny’s Books.  Jenny found something a little disturbing in the way his Asperger’s-or-whatever-it-was got treated like something he only needed to grow out of (paraphrasing freely, here).  I got that too.  Mostly I objected to the idea that a mail room job in a law firm qualified as the real world, or that Marcelo’s interactions with slimy, believable Wendell Holmes (loved the name for the character) would be what set off the sudden growth spurt!  Or even Jasmine.  I enjoyed her, but she wasn’t alive to me.

I liked the writing, I liked the dialog.  I liked the Rabbi, but not the nuns or Aurora.  The social activist / humanist stuff went a bit overboard.  That’s personal preference: it makes me uncomfortable when doing the right thing is dramatized in a certain way, but I can say with conviction that Stork did a good job of writing the book he set out to write.

My favorite bit of dialog was near the end, when Marcelo asks Jasmine if Belinda was a better worker than Marcelo.  Jasmine says that Belinda was faster, but whatever Marcelo did, he did well.  (Again paraphrasing.)  Marcelo accepts this and muses, “in the real world, faster is better.”

And I thought, “Ah ha!  Living in the real world is a choice.  You can live with the idealists instead.  You can live with the nuns.  You can live in your music.  You can live in backwoods Vermont.”

I’m glad I don’t live in the real world.

What I Was by Meg Rosoff

January 25, 2010

Viking, 2007

Finished: January 20,  2010

Source: book blog

Genre: bildungsroman with futuristic first-person narrator device

On the Scales: no idea

How did I miss this book?  I have a routine: when I’m feeling dissatisfied with my reading, I get on the local library’s catalog and look up the names of authors whose books never fail me, just to see if they’ve come out with something new.  If one of them has, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.  If not, just seeing the names of books I’ve enjoyed in the past cheers me up.  Meg Rosoff is one of these authors, and yet somehow she was off my radar for a couple of years.  When I checked the library catalog after hearing about What I Was in one of my favorite book blogs, I discovered that I had missed not one but two new books!  I read Bride’s Farewell and got on the queue for this one.

Meg Rosoff writes short, dense novels with flawlessly paced prose and stinging emotional intensity.  I would be surprised they’re so widely popular, if it weren’t that they can be read on quite a few levels, by different kinds of readers.  Rosoff’s gorgeous descriptions can lull you into such a sense of well-being that you are a bit insulated from the awful things that are going on inside her people, and between them, and around them.  The main characters’ fortitude, also.  They take things so well, you tend to trust Rosoff to give them a happy ending.

And does she?  Yes and no.   If you can call growth a happy ending, yes, because all of her main characters grow in her books–but will they be happy?  Can anyone?  Are there endings?  That is left open to interpretation.

Sometimes, anyway.  Bride’s Farewell was brutal in its determination to de-romanticize mid-19th century England from the point of view of the poor rural classes.  Accomplished revenge sets the stage for a pretty definite ending, and not a happy one.  What I Was is a much more difficult and (on the surface) less harrowing book.

I have to admit I won’t be able to make head or tail of it until I read it again.  I absorbed all the text, understood all the action, but I’m not sure what it all meant.  I think it’s about identity, with a series of interlocking metaphors to illustrate her point: the images of the Medieval town that tipped into the sea and the receding coastline overtaking the little house on the beach; Oswald the historical saint and St. Oswald the boarding school in 1963–rotten relic of a punitive education system upholding a set of social norms that the main character finds unbearable.  These things actually held more weight for me than the schoolboy’s relationship with the nature-boy he comes to idealize.  The plot is somewhere between Pygmalion and Narcissus.  In being transfixed by Finn, Hilary is really being transfixed by a version himself; and in pouring so much emotion into his creation of Finn the counterfeit, he is bringing to life a situation over which he ultimately has no control.

Hilary tells his story from the perspective of a very old man, in a future where (we’re given hints), the planet is failing.  I feel that this is as important to the story as the strong sense of the medieval past that Hilary has in 1963, but I’m not sure how.  Maybe I could have had a try at working it out from the passage where Rosoff describes how the schoolboys’ insatiable appetite for the bloody tortures of the Dark Ages in their history lessons, but I’ve taken the book back to the library!

The other thing I’m not sure about is how to work in gender and sexuality–clearly important themes.  I wonder if you could say Hilary’s misinterpretation of self as other and vice versa has something to do with the “male principle” and “female principle” (hoary phrases, can’t come up with better) both being fluid and reversible and not ultimately relevant?  Erosion and destruction as necessary in history and persons, in order for the new to come.  (I love, love, love the passage describing the storm, when Hilary intuits that he must open the shutters and let it blow through or be broken by it.  Genius!)  Water as a destroyer.  A horrible patriarchal educational institution being a womb out of which something completely new is born, in one boy’s case at least.

And yet . . . I’m nervous about the course of his life after the events in the book.  It seems he never got over anything.  Lived stunted in a different way than he might have done, but stunted nonetheless.  Failed to learn the lesson his own life exemplified.  Memories of love aren’t enough to sustain one for a whole century; I suspect him of making an unreliable case for them in his old age.