May 26, 2009

Review: What's Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

I've been on a minor Robertson Davies kick lately, and What's Bred in the Bone has once again proved itself to be an example of Davies at the very top of his game. It seems to me that everytime I try to explain why he's so great I end up dissolving into incoherency -- blaasrhghghahrarhagh read it read it asdashfhsdkjhfaskdfh -- but I will do my best.

The novel opens with a very fraught meeting between some members of something called The Cornish Trust, evidently a family business. Arthur Cornish has hired the Reverend Simon Darcourt, a historian, to write a biography of his late uncle, Francis Cornish. But Simon and Arthur are both getting cold feet: it turns out that Uncle Frank was perhaps a bit of a crook, and such details of his life as exist are noticeably sketchy. It may be beyond Simon's skill as a biographer to resurrect him, and it may be beyond Arthur's comfort zone to have the old man's perhaps-shady past out in the open.

Enter the supernatural metanarrative element: at this point, after some discussion, the narrative of What's Bred in the Bone is largely taken over by The Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas -- Maimas being Francis Cornish's personal daimon, and Zadkiel being, of course, the Angel of Biography. Maimas, as a daimon, was a major influence in Francis's life -- perhaps not always for the best -- and he reveals Francis's life and his own role to Zadkiel, playing them both back as if they his life were a film. It's a bit clunky sometimes, but it largely works.

That's the setup. But the real meat of the story, of course, is the life of Francis Cornish. And we've got your bastardy, and looners locked in attics, and gross artistic fraud, and spy work, and bankers, and people named things like Prudence and Ismay and Zadok and Mary-Jim, and actually some more bastardy, and the whole thing is chockablock full of those random bits or erudition & ornamental knowledge that let you know that you're reading something penned by the inestimable Davies. Plus, Dunstan Ramsay has a cameo, which charms me.

What's Bred in the Bone reads more like the Deptford Trilogy than any of the Samuel Marchbanks books -- that is to say, it's Davies being intelligent and ambiguous rather more than intelligent and witty, though there are certainly comic moments.  It's smart and chunky and thrilling, and all of you should read it, aarghsdk blargh blarghoo, the end.

May 25, 2009

Review: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., by Judy Blume

I would have loved this book as a twelve-year-old, if I had been allowed to read it, which I wasn't. I'm not sure why that is -- well, I haven't asked -- but being a decade past the targeted reader age I figured that it was probably safe for me to finally take a look through it. I picked up a copy the same age as I am for $.25 at a rummage sale.

So, Margaret Ann Simon, age almost-twelve, is moved out of New York City and into Farbrook, New Jersey. Margaret beings grade six soon after moving, and the book details her experiences at school, her quest to find a religion, her longing for breasts, and her eponymous talks with God.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret has been frequently challenged for some controversial content: it talks frankly about menstruation and other puberty-related changes, and it shows a young girl from a non-religious Jewish-Christian family trying to choose a religion for herself. I didn't find either of these to particularly threatening; it is a well-written story about the things that twelve-year-olds are already thinking and talking about.

Yes: the text is frank. Margaret visits a synagogue and several churches, and doesn't find God in either of them. Margaret and her friends buy bras for the first time, talk about who has breasts and who doesn't, wait eagerly for their first periods, and exchange lists of the boys they like.  But you're kidding yourself if you think that Judy Blume is making these things up out of whole cloth, and that taking this book away will somehow stop your daughters from being curious about boys and sex and their bodies.  Same deal about religion.

For me, reading Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was like being that age again. My friends and I talked about the same things: do you need a bra yet? do you have hair growing anywhere? do I need to use deoderant yet? does anyone have her period? do I need to shave my legs yet? And Margaret and her friends make some dumb mistakes, and are catty, and find out eventually that the attractive boy is sometimes also a big jerkface. It feels real; Judy Blume is clearly a lady who remembers what it's like to be twelve.

There are some anachronisms -- belted sanitary pads, for one, which I had to actually look up. But overall, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is a smart, relevant book that I would recommend to pre-teens and their parents alike.

May 19, 2009

Don't Support Authors

Back in February, I wrote a post about why I love second-hand books -- something that I didn't see as particularly controversial, but which did generate some oppositional comments. One commenter wrote the following:
Worthy points, however i have in the last 5 years begun buying new books in order to support the authors, they don’t see a penny off of secondhand sales, and i want them to stay in the business of writing! think of it as voting with your dollars, or tipping a musician.

Another chimed in,
the one great tragedy of the used book is that the author will never receive recompense for it. Sure, the book was bought once, but to never buy a new book? I hope you write your favorite authors so they at least know they’re being read.

Since my answer to both was rather incoherent at the time, let me now explain why I think it's also important to not support authors directly. (Not that it's a bad thing to do -- but it's not the only thing to do. This post probably should have been titled something like Why It's Important that Non-Author-Supporting Literary Outlets Exist, but that's a little unwieldy. You'll just have to deal with it.)

There are two main literary establishments that don't really support authors directly: libraries and used bookstores. Both of these are essential in a literate culture, even though they don't pay royalties. Why? I'll tell you:

Libraries and used bookstores keep reading accessible. Earlier in the spring I had a $50 gift card to spend at a big-box bookstore. That $50 only bought three new novels, and I still had to pony up some change to cover the tax. It's not so bad, really -- I had fifty bucks, I got to blow it on books, and all was well. But what if I only had, say, $10? You can't even buy a mass market paperback with that these days: most of the ones I see are $10.99 or $11.99, plus tax. Having literary havens established where books are cheap (used bookstores) and/or free (libraries) ensures that those who can't afford to purchase many/any new books can keep reading.

Used bookstores support the local economy. (Well, locally-owned ones do, anyway.) I like going to the handful of used bookstores in walking distance and knowing that I'm spending money in my own community. When I buy books in a local shop, I'm supporting my neighbours as well as my reading habits.

Libraries and used bookstores  are essential in fostering a literate/literary society. This definitely touches on the whole accessibility thing again; books should not be a privilege of the educated or moneyed elite. But it's more than that: used bookstores and libraries, by making books accessible, are better able to foster literacy than the big all-new chain stores.

Used bookstores and libraries let to try out new authors risk-free. Sometimes we all want to try a new author or series, but aren't sure if the books will be good enough to justify new-book prices. A used bookstore or a library lets readers try out new authors with very little financial risk or outlay -- but doesn't obligate them to continue to buy that author's books at discounted prices. All of us have a few authors whose books we love so much that we will buy anything they ever write, and probably in hardback to boot. Being able to widely sample authors at a low cost will allow more authors to become those super favourites -- perhaps authors whose books wouldn't otherwise get picked up in a big box bookstore.

Libraries and used bookstores make good use of resources. Remember the three Rs? There's nothing that libraries do better than reuse books.

Used bookstores and libraries support authors in ways other than with royalties. Both establishments help to maintain a generally literate culture, and more readers means more books bought and read at all levels of the literary food chain. Libraries and used bookstores encourage readers to try new authors whenever they can. They also provide venues for readings, signings, and other aspects of the book promitional machine.

Should you buy new books if you can? Absolutely. But if you can't, don't get your knickers in a knot over it. Libraries and used bookstores may not pay royalties, but they support a culture of literacy -- and, indirectly, authors -- in several very important ways.

May 12, 2009

April Search Terms Bring May Snark

Every month or so I like to take a look at the search terms that are bringing people to my blog, because it amuses me greatly.

where do fishes come from Well, when some male fishes and some female fishes love each other very much...

javascript cookie apostrophe Yankee Oscar uniform Mike India November echo November Oscar sierra echo November sierra echo.

is a love a second hand? Nope. Love is an hour hand, for sure.

dear internet amuse me With pleasure, my dear.

incest theme in dogeaters Don't tell my prof, but I never actually finished Dogeaters. I got kinda hung up on the weird cover (not that it turned me off, but that it seemed more interesting than the text) and then, well, you know how school is. I moved on to not finish greater and better things. So I can't answer your query. You can always wait for it to show up on Shmoop, I suppose.

style is more important than substance and everyone thinks that style is more important than substance

naughty bits from tess of d'urbervilles Ha ha, "naughty bits". There are some, I suppose, although they're not particularly salacious. I won't give you page references, but I'll give you some textual history to make up for it. Won't that be exciting!

So, Tess is about this peasant girl, Tess, who finds out that she is distantly descended from some local nobility. She's also young, but hot: lots of the narrative is totally focused on her body. Her life gets turned upside-down -- not in a good way -- and eventually she's knocked up by her quasi-cousin. Then a whole bunch of other things happen (the baby dies, and then her husband abandons her because he found out that she isn't a virgin, and then she kills a dude, and then she is hanged) and then the book ends and it's all very tragic.  But here's the thing: was she raped, or was it consensual?

The answer is both, actually, depending on which version of the text you read. It was severely bowdlerized by Hardy himself, partly in response to a morally outraged public. The first version that was published was heavily censored, and later versions became more explicit. As well, in one version Tess is very clearly raped -- but in another it's pretty ambiguous. I think that most texts now tend to use the 1891 version, which is thought to be closest to what Hardy actually wanted to be. In short, the naughty bits you seek may not even exist if you've picked up at earlier version. Choose wisely!

please if person want be came of magic You're welcome if person had un done from magic. Or something.

"neurology of angels" I had hoped that this was a scientific query of some sort. But it turns out that Neurology of Angels is a book. Oh well.

"books have a soul" I disagree. But books are created by writers and read by readers, all of whom have souls and who impart characteristics of themselves onto/into the text. Books don't have souls, but they reflect ours.

"it reads vs it says" If this is a grammatical puzzle, I'd go with "it reads" in the case of text, and "it says" in the case of speaking robots. But if this search isn't grammar-related, I'm putting a fiver on It Reads.

i'm searching for delight Aren't we all? on Things like this puzzle me ever so much. I get this all the time, people searching on the exact address of my blog. Are they trolling for links? Or do they just not understand locations bars?

hey am not working an i love to read Congratulations? It's nice to run into people who love to read. Unfortunately, that's not particularly marketable -- trust me. I just finished an English degree, which largely boiled down to novels for four years and getting course credit for it. Now I am a glorious intern. Dare ye follow in my footsteps?

May 6, 2009

Review: Vanishing Acts, by Jodi Picoult

I know that Jodi Picoult has legions of fans who will disagree with me on this, mayhap violently, but I'm going to say it anyway: I really don't see what's supposed to be so great about her books. Vanishing Acts was just kind of spectacularly okay. Is particular novel an outlier? Are other books fantastic? You tell me.

Vanishing Acts opens with Delia, the protagonist, finding a small child as part of her job as a search-and-rescue operation. She has a four-year-old daughter, Sophie, with her (recovering) alcoholic lawyer financé, Eric. She and Eric still spend time with their mutual best friend, Fritz. Delia also spends a lot of time with her father, Andrew, a genial widower who stands on Town Council and builds seniors' homes and does magic tricks.

Except, of course, his name isn't really Andrew. It's Charles. And her name isn't really Cordelia. It's Bethany. And her mother, it turns out, didn't die in a car crash after all. Andrew/Charles is really Delia/Bethany's father, but she's the victim of a parental kidnapping, taken from her mother in Arizona to New Hampshire as a four-year-old. This all comes out at around page twenty; angst and jail time ensue. Also, there's a recipe and instructions for making crystal meth.  And for how to make a gun out of an asthma puffer. Also, there is shanking. You know, it's really a darker story than the cover might lead you to believe (the version I read had this cover).

I think that Vanishing Acts has two major problems, namely the voicing and the protagonist. The narration is shared among multiple characters who all use the first-person perspective: Delia, the said grown-up kidnappee; her father, Charles/Andrew, the pharmacist-turned-felon; Eric, Delia's (recovering) alkie fiancĂ© and, not coincidentally, her father's lawyer; Fitz, Delia and Eric's best friend, who works as a journalist and (surprise, surprise) is full of unrequited love for Delia; and Elise, Delia's not-actually-dead Mexican bruja mother.  And all of these voices sound the same. Exactly the same, in fact; I can only assume that they sound like Jodi Picoult. [1]

This is problematic largely because it takes away from the authenticity of the story. All of the aforementioned characters have led different lives, grown up in different states, and the like -- but the monotony of their voicing takes away from that. None of the characters seem to think or speak in different ways, despite their variety of age, experience, sex, racial heritage, etc. It's highly noticeable -- and when I stop my reading to think about why the writing isn't better, that's a fairly bad sign. (Aside: do you know who did multiple characters with multiple voices really well? Russell Banks, that's who. End of aside.)

The other big problem, for me, was Delia. Not so much that she's hugely annoying -- she's alright, I guess -- but that everyone else in the novel seems to think she walks on water. Neither Eric nor Fitz can live without her, as they tell the readers what felt like several dozen times. Her father was possessive enough -- perhaps with justification, perhaps not -- to take her to another State and then try to give her the world. The township hearts her because she rescues runaways and little kidnappees with her very smart dog. Overall, there's rather a lot of "Ooh, Delia is sooo amazing"-type telling, with very little showing to account for it. The reader is told over and over that Delia is the light of [whoever]'s life, but she doesn't seem all that special from the way that she acts or thinks. It's a bit irritating and again, it's something that draws my attention to the writing instead of the plot -- that's right, I'm harping on style again -- and as such, it doesn't serve the book very well.

That being said, it's not an awful book. Vanishing Acts is an average read, probably well-suited to the beach. I'm in no hurry to read more Picoult after this, but she's not left a bad taste in my mouth either: it's meh reading.

[1] Okay, there is actually a reason for this within the story. But it comes so late in the text that it can't make up for the reader's previous impression of stultifying sameness. My objection stands.

May 4, 2009

Pimp my High School Library

I chanced to reconnect, the other day, with the excellent head librarian from my high school days. She's still there, but she's retiring at the end of this year -- and looking forward to it very much, I might add. During the conversation, it chanced to come up that she still has a fair amount of book budget to spend before she leaves.

Now, when I was a wee bairn in grade nine, I informed her in no uncertain terms that the YA collection she had was... inadequate. I believe my exact words were "after a while, you realise that all YA books are the same", and I soon moved on to the science fiction and classics sections. In the intervening years, however, I've come to realise that there's lots of really, really good young adult fiction out there, whatever my earlier impressions might have been. And after avoiding said genre like the plague, I am now coming around and highly enjoying most of what I've read.

So here's the thing: I've promised her a list of books that she should buy for the library before she goes -- a retirement bequeathal, if you will. I want to put together a list of some really kick-butt YA (in any genre), but I need some help.

Here's the list I've come up with off the top of my head, in no particular order:

  • An Abundance of Katherines (John Green)

  • Looking for Alaska (John Green)

  • Paper Towns (John Green)

  • The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

  • The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly)

  • Zoe's Tale (John Scalzi)

  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud)

  • The Golem's Eye (Jonathan Stroud)

  • Ptolemy's Gate (Jonathan Stroud)

  • The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

  • The Bromeliad (Terry Pratchett)

  • When We Were Romans (Matthew Kneale)

What am I missing? I'm not terribly well-read in terms of YA, and so I will eagerly add your suggestions to the list -- leave them in the comments for me, or contact me more directly. I'm going to try to send it to her by the end of the week.

(Note: you're of course free to suggest other types of books than straight YA -- but that's where I want to concentrate, since I remember the YA collection being particularly uninspiring.)

What's the best YA being written right now?