Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Imaginary Favorite Author

You know, like your imaginary boyfriend, who is probably John Cusack, or maybe George Clooney or Hugh Jackman. My imaginary new favorite author is Margaret Peterson Haddix. I think I mentioned her recently--I read Just Ella, and blogged about how princesses are done all wrong. But, though flawed, there was a core of something great there, so I checked out Double Identity. But then I figured out the big plot twist after five pages. I don't know if that was because I'm not the 12 year old target audience, or if this was a flaw in the book, but I put it down instead of reading through to see what else the story had to offer.

But I decided to keep trying, so I got Among the Hidden, the first in her series. Finally, this book was great. It's a lower reading level, but sharp, serious, thoughtful, and fast-paced. The story is about a boy who lives in a world where only two children are allowed. His two older brothers lead normal lives, but he can't leave the farm and, when a housing development goes in next door, becomes confined to the house. The whole totalitarian government thing is also going on in The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which I just finished, and contrasting the two has been very interesting. The governement in the Haddix book is much less tidy around the edges, and it looks a lot more like what a real government looks like--impenetrable, complicated, everywhere and nowhere. Well rendered.

So the next time I went to the library, I went a little nuts. I found the next book in the Shadow Children series, Among the Imposters. I found another book called Leaving Fishers, which is apparently about a girl who joins and leaves a cult. I got Running Out of Time, which looks like a version of the movie The Village, hopefully better executed. And something else called Found that I don't know anything about but that's by her.

So hopefully I'll have something really intelligent to say about Margaret Peterson Haddix in the next couple of weeks. So far, Leaving Fishers is not bad, though it's a little heavy-handed. That might be, though, because the story that cult members tell potential members really sounds like that. I've read enough to suspect that.

Also, I'm going to tack this on the end because I might have a real favorite author. The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner, is really, really good. She needs to write another book right now so I can read it, please.

Children's Books

As a parent, I read a few children's books. I imagine and hope that those quantities are going to increase over time--right now, I'm lucky if I can discern the words on a couple of pages before Adam gnaws them out of existence, or closes the book just because he can. So while I have some opinions--Bear Snores On holds up pretty well to repeated readings, I love Sandra Boynton, Baby Einstein is drivel--I have not yet felt the need to tell you about this.

But then, I read The Amazing Bone.

When I told Mike about it, I only got that far before he gave me a look that said that the title is the punch line. I don't even want to bother with that. Any humor you find there obscures the sheer AWFULNESS of this book. It's awful on almost every perceivable level--literary, storytelling, and possibly even age appropriateness. I'm almost horrified that it has a Reading Rainbow sticker on the cover. Levar Burton has something to answer for here. The only level on which the book does succeed is illustration; they're pretty. I like the style. End of positives.

Now I have to tell you about it, don't I? Sigh. I'd rather not relive it. Okay, it's a picture book, and all the characters are different animals. Petunia is a little girl pig who skips about enjoying the day. This part goes on a long time and is not unpleasant, though it is undirected. Eventually she finds herself sitting under a tree enjoying the day, and she says out loud how she loves the whole world. A voice answers, "Me too!" Petunia discovers, under a tree, a little bone that can talk and make sounds. It belonged to a witch who dropped it by accident.

Petunia and the bone make friends. She heads home to show her parents. On the way she encounters three robbers, but the bone scares them off with loud scary noises. Then she encounters a fox who decides he's going to take her home and eat her. He's not afraid of the bone's noises, and in fact is excited that he'll own a magic bone. Petunia begins to cry.

Fox locks her in a back room with the bone and starts getting ready for dinner--sharpening his knife, stoking the fire, etc. He's having pork. It's drawn out and pretty scary--this poor pig who's like 8 years old and hoping that he'll kill her quickly before he eats her. The bone doesn't know what to do either.

Finally the fox comes in for her. As he leads her into the kitchen, the bone suddenly starts shouting nonsense words. The bone doesn't know what it's doing, it just feels compelled to shout these words. As it does, the fox begins to shrink. By the time the bone is done, the fox is as small as a mouse and runs away into the floorboards. Neither she nor the bone know how this happened. She runs home and introduces the bone to her parents and they all live happily ever after the end.

Now, say it with me: WHAT??? I don't even know where to start. Why is it a bone, not a pebble or statue or bug? A bone? I really expected to have that explained to me by the end. Also, didn't anyone else learn, in like sixth grade, the term deus ex machina? One of our characters randomly starts shouting magic words that he didn't know he knew, and it solves all their problems. That's totally how an episode of House ended last week. Great storytelling technique, is what I'm saying.

Urgh. I'm turning into a crank. But really, this book is so weird. It was published in 1976, and I have no idea how it got past an editor, except that the author appears to have published a number of books before that. I can't imagine what they look like, but I have to think they must be better than this, for him to have slipped it in the door.

Okay, I'm not all moaning. I'm rereading The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and it's really fabulous. so there's that. I feel like I complain too much, but sometimes, you just have to stand back in awe. So, William Steig, wherever you are, I'm very sorry to be so cranky, but I think you owe me an explanation about the talking bone.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Up For a Challenge

It's not that The Nine is too heavy or serious. It's so well-written and compelling and I could keep reading. It's that the issues that have shaped the Supreme Court in the past twenty years are all ones that it kind of hurts to read about. I have opinions about politics--while I'm not particularly active, they're fairly strongly held opinions. And while I do understand how reasonable people can be on the other side of some of these things, I disagree with them so strongly that it's painful to read about Antonin Scalia tearing into a lawyer with what I consider to be a spurious argument.

The first part of the book discusses abortion a good deal, and while I can see how someone could be under what I consider to be a mistaken impression about when life begins, I can set that aside and see it as a debate. I get outraged when people get violent about it, but that's not an issue before the court today. But I am blinded by rage when people try to pass laws that say that a pregnant woman who is going to die cannot save her life by having an abortion, but must instead die with her baby. Because "mother's health" is a term that needs scare quotes.

This exact issue hasn't come up, but the mother's health clause has been under discussion, and the idea of someone in authority, the lawmakers in my own country saying this to a mother--to a husband and father who is facing this horrific situation--is so staggeringly awful, so evil, that I can't bear to read about it.

And now we're into the 2000 elections, and I know how it's going to turn out. And I know already that it was a travesty, I knew that, but I think reading about the details is going to be more harrowing than I can manage right now. Is that weird? That I don't have the emotional strength to read about the details of a political struggle that ended almost 10 years ago an the fallout of which is just a fact of life by now?

What can I say? I'm a delicate flower.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Now That's Commitment

I've stopped pretending. I'm just reading kids' stuff, light stuff, easygoing stuff. It's a load off my mind.

I just started a new audiobook, Tomorrow When the War Began, by John Marsden. It's an Australian book, and so is the narrator, which accent takes a little getting used to. But so far it's a pretty good camping story, which is going to turn into a story of some kids who come back from a major camping trip to find out that their town and country have been invaded and taken over. It's very Red Dawn, and so far very good.

I'm coming to the end of The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, by Alexander McCall Smith, which is not a YA book, but is sufficiently light in tone for the state of mind I've been in. It always makes me sad when there's conflict between our main characters in these books, but in this one you really feel the theme of patience and tolerance as being the reason a person can maintain such a pleasant attitude. Sigh, Botswana.

The little pile next to my computer contains New Moon, the second Twilight book, by Stephanie Meyer. I checked it out because it's never on the shelf, but there it was on the shelf, but I knew after three pages that I couldn't read it. At least, with an audiobook, you have the narrator convincing you that her love for Edward is true and real. In print, it's just unbearable. After ONE PAGE. I'm so sorry, Twilight fans, please don't kill me.

The reason I found it on the shelf is because it was next to In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber, by L.A. Meyer, which I am absolutely tickled to read. Sometimes, when I can't wait to get started on a book, I have trouble starting it. There's that ramp-up at the beginning when you don't know what's going on yet, there's the little sliver of doubt that it'll be as good as the last three, as good as you hope. There's the dread of finishing it. And there's something else, some other inertia that holds me off.

In this case, there's also the burning question of whether I'll read it before or after The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner, which I'm ALSO thrilled to have before me. I just finished The Queen of Attolia, and I'm so excited for the sequel. How can one resist following the cleverest character around on his misadventures--even when they're sometimes gloomy and dangerous? Gen has the same appeal as Jacky Faber, and they're due around the same time, and I'm going to have a very hard time deciding which to read first.

That should get me through--that and The Nine, the Supreme Court book that I'm still in the middle of. I figure I can get it back to the library on time if I read five or ten pages a day. Assuming I can renew it. Right?

God bless the simplicity and inspiration of young adult writers everywhere. Thank you all so much.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Parenting, Picoult-style

In Picoult’s fiction we rarely encounter characterologically bad parents. Instead, we meet mothers and fathers who try and fail, baroquely, to meet the current standards of caring for children — people who affect the deepest concern, who have absorbed the therapeutic language of talk shows and women’s magazines but who are congenitally unable to implement the idiom.

-"Jodi Picoult and the Anxious Parent," Ginia Bellafante, NY Times, June 17

Excuse my rusty citation skills. I liked this article, which was mostly an interview with the author. It was an interesting look at how she's built her own ouvre--all her books are pretty much the same, and here's how.

The quote above interested me, though, because the author's take on what she does is so different than what I saw. It's a little embarrassing to admit this, because I think she's right, and by extension I'm pretty blind to a lot of the nuance in the world. But I've always seen Picoult's books as stories in which everyone is doing their best to do the right thing, and yet everything turns out horribly anyway. Human frailty and bad luck conspire to make a mess of everything, in spite of excellent parenting--this is how I would have encapsulated what I thought she was doing.

This author, however, seems to be saying that the message is closer to "bad parenting practice can look a lot like good parenting theory. I can't really argue with that, and looking back, I can see that Jodi Picoult gets a lot more credit if you look at it that way. In my theory, all these people are trying their best, and it's a weakness of the parenting system that that keeps resulting in something awful. In her theory, these parents think they're trying, but really they're being controlling, or gentle but oblivious, or some other innocuous looking but really shattering parenting trait. The concerned, doting mother in My Sister's Keeper, for example, is not making the best of a bad situation and trying to save her children. She's obsessing over the one daughter at the expense of the others.

Here's the thing: I had seen this, and thought of it as a failing of the author. I had thought that she was backing these parents up, that the omniscient third person narrator was looking at them benevolantly, rather than critically. I think I might have been wrong, and, while this might not change my enjoyment of the stories, it certainly changes the reading. It makes sense, then to see, as the Times writer does, that the situation in My Sister's Keeper goes off the rails in a way that is "meant to serve as a cosmic rebuke to the mother’s stilted management."

I don't think that this explanation covers everything, though. All of her stories are based around a major secret that is being kept by one of the characters (as I've mentioned before, sometimes it's being kept for NO EARTHLY REASON, e.g. Vanishing Acts, The Pact). Although sometimes the parents have secrets of their own, the world-shattering secrets in these books almost invariably belong to the kids. I can't help but see in this pattern a statement to the effect of, "even good, concerned parents can't know everything about their kids, and sometimes those secrets are deadly." The secret-keeping on the part of the kids often exonerates the parents--they really were doing a good job, but they were deliberately fooled.

I won't say I was entirely wrong about her, but I will say that I think I wasn't looking deep enough. And as I said, that's embarrassing--I remember, after seeing the movie The Hours, making a comment about being annoyed at how Meryl Streep's character's inability to take action had annoyed me. Someone replied that I wasn't very sympathetic to depression, and I was absolutely humiliated to realize that, though I had recognized that the other two characters were depressed, I had not noticed that that was the whole point of the movie.

Point being, I can be a total moron. I'm amazed that you're still reading this. Thank you for your patience.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brain Freeze

I'm not sure what it is, but I can't get my brain around any of the big stuff. I've read a lot of YA lately, and I'd been feeling like I should look for something meatier. But I can't seem to keep any of it in my line of sight. I can't read the Jodi Picoult (there was in interesting article in the Times about her, thank you Linden, and I'll have more to say about that tomorrow), fine. But I had to put down The Book of Night Women, which I had really wanted to read after hearing so much about it on NPR a few months ago. But the dialect was just hitting me too hard--it required real focus to read, because every time you picked it up, you had to get back into a very specific dialect. I do too much of my reading in one page spurts for that.

Somehow, though the YA stuff keeps me coming back. I'm not usually embarrassed about that, but right now I'm feeling a little like I've dropped the ball because of this. I'm going to push that aside, though, and just be excited that I have the next Bloody Jack book, In the Belly of the Bloodhound, and Margaret Peterson Haddix's Among the Hidden. I gave up on her Double Identity when I figured out the plot twist on page seven; I assume there's more to it than the twist, but I need to keep moving forward right now. I got New Moon, too, for some godawful reason--mostly because there's usually a long wait and there it was on the shelf. I just finished Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton, which was such sweet fun.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, I am very much enjoying The Nine. It'll take me a long time to finish, since I only read about five pages a day, but it's really interesting and dense with information. It's always fun when a nonfiction book has worldbuilding to do.

I had a bunch of other things to say, but my mind is all over the place. Another time, then.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Better to Call It Greatreads

If you're not on Goodreads for the book logging and sharing, then you should at least check out the ads. This one is my favorite, under the tagline "Book Videos." It's a little company that provides do-it-yourself (I suppose) video advertisements for books, based on a series of stock photos fading and panning past behind whatever text you want to move dramatically across the screen. They read like the jokes they make in sitcoms about movie trailers. I can't describe it any better than that, but I can say that their samples are Ponderous with Stirring Emotion and you should check them out.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I, Waffle

Let's start out by saying that I consider myself a Jodi Picoult fan. I'm on record as saying that I can't read more than one of her books per year, because they all bear such a remarkable resemblance to each other. But I've read My Sister's Keeper, Vanishing Acts, The Pact, Nineteen Minutes, and Plain Truth, and I've enjoyed all of them very much. I have had only one consistent complaint, and that is that the big twist that she saves for the end often depends on someone keeping a secret against all reason and everyone's best interests. But this is a relatively small problem, and really isn't too glaring if you don't read two or three in a row.

I'm also on the record with my drive-by concern about multiple viewpoints (and fonts. I can totally understand how a person can become a font snob) in Handle with Care. But that was mostly just bluster--I complain a lot, it's the cheap and easy way to talk about almost anything. I was still looking forward to the book.

Which I started today. And sadly, I put it down and have decided that I'm not going to read it. The beginning put me off in two ways. One will probably not persist through the whole book; the other is, I think another pervasive Picoult peculiarity (God, I'm sorry, I just had to). Couple this with the fact that I have too many books on my list now to persevere with something that I'm only lukewarm on and I'm just going to have to throw in the towel.

Problem one, the simple one, is that, at this point in my life, I have a pretty low threshold for suffering baby stories. Under normal conditions, I have a very high tolerance for such things; you might even call me callous. But that was before I began spending my days with a drooly little creature with a potbelly and a bizarre fondness for Andy Warhol. (Seriously, he'll stare at the soup can print in the kitchen and laugh and laugh. But that's another blog.) Now, I have to stop reading newspaper articles in which tragic things happen to babies. Sometimes, I even get upset when tragic things happen to the parents of babies. And, seriously, I'm incredibly insensitive.

So this little baby born with seven broken bones and in so much pain...well, I wasn't quite able to deal with it. But if that was all, well, she's not going to be a little baby for the whole book.

But the other problem is something that I think I've identified as another Picoultism: the Mystical Nature of Motherhood. Again, I have a drooly little goober of my own now, so I do understand the need to protect him and the love that seems all out of proportion for someone who screams at you that much. But the goopiness of the mother-child bond as described in this book is cloying. If you squeeze the book, sentiment drips out and leaves a puddle on the floor.

There's a passage in the first chapter where the mother is describing the daughter's birth, and she keeps repeating the child's name. I would need to quote a lot to get the point across, but she basically repeats the baby's name like an incantation, and the baby--thirty seconds old and being bustled over by doctors--hears her and stops crying. In spite of the broken bones and the having just been born. This is sentimentality that I just can't stomach.

Couple that with the discussions the parents share before the birth about the daughter's potentially terminal illness, in which the mother does not seem at all interested in the facts of the illness, but only in the fact that her daughter is destined for her in some way, and you just get a character I can't relate to. I mean, yeah, your child is more to you than the symptoms of their illness. But I'm not into the whole 'babies as angels sent from above' thing. Babies are people busy growing into grown-ups, and it's your job as a parent to facilitate that. Which means understanding their health. The fact that she knowingly gave birth to a baby with a very serious genetic disorder without any practical planning--how will we feed her/hold her/carry her?--just makes me dislike the narrator so much that I can't read the book.

Wow, i had a lot to say about a book that I only read 10 pages of. I'll stop now--the book and the review. Sorry, Picoult lovers. I'm still planning to read Keeping Faith.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I think I might not be in the right headspace for some of these Major Reads I've bitten off. The Nine is interesting, but I read in fits and snatches, and I really think this requires more sustained time commitment. I have a bunch of novels out, but many of them are ambitious reads: American Wife, The Book of Night Women, books that are either going to require attention to appreciate or, God help us, just a huge time investment.

Interestingly, Intern, about the navel-gazing, self-doubting young doctor in training, seems to be peering into my soul and reporting back to me. I wish I had what it takes to be a doctor--apparently so does the narrator, the difference being that he tried. But his self-doubt, his inability to decide what he wants, to be inspired--even just the plain old sense he has that there's a right answer about what to do with your life that he hasn't found yet...well, they are the province of the young, and the confused. I'm not immune to these things.

He's going through some rough times in the part I'm reading, and it's interesting that he describes them exactly the way I would describe some of my own difficulties. I think it's interesting how you sometimes run across something like that, totally accidentally, just at a time when it speaks to what's going on in your own life. I don't believe in fate or anything like that, but sometimes it just all comes together.

Like the time I was reading two books at the same time that both had a character named Stanislaus--one was an alias, the other a nun. Seriously, what are the odds?

I don't think I'm being quite coherent, and for that I apologize. Better later, honest.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What You Can Get Away With

Not all authors can pull off all the risky moves all the time.

No one ever claimed I was anything but picky. I think I tend to sound pickier than I am, because it's easier to dissect what doesn't work than what does, even in something that is overall successful. But two examples of things that tend to work against a book for me are coming up for me right now: multiple first person narrators, and memoirs in which the main character (ie memoirist) is really unlikeable.

It really seems like someone writing a memoir is probably putting their best spin on things. I mean, there's a level on which they have almost no choice but to have some sympathy with the character, if you know what I'm saying. And leaving off the "but I'm majorly reformed now" memoir, presumably most people writing their autobiography thinks there's something worth telling about in their life story. I guess, thinking about it more thoroughly, what I'm really bothered by is a main character or narrator whom the author thinks is sympathetic, but who is really kind of wanker. Maybe they're selfish or mean or cold or rude. It doesn't so much matter why I don't like them; if I don't like them, I have little use for them.

Anyway, Intern, by Sandeep Jauhar, is a memoir of this doctor's internship. Now, clearly he's a respected cardiologist and medical writer at the point where he's writing this book. But he does an excellent job of painting himself as kind of a crappy intern. If you thought JD from Scrubs was self-absorbed, my God, this guy. He's older than his classmates, almost 30, because he had his PhD in physics before he decided to become a doctor. He doesn't like physics because it's too insulated, not "real" enough. So he goes to medical school and finds it very hard, maybe too hard. But not challenging, if you see what I mean, because it's not about ideas. I swear, if this guy got any more involved examining his navel, he's going to turn inside out.

Yet somehow it's a pretty good book. Part of it is the behind-the-scenes at the hospital thing. There's an ER style thrill about the medical dramas. Part is also that, clearly all this "God I don't want to be a doctor, and I suck at it anyway and I sure don't want to marry a doctor and why did I do this and what else could I do? " is going to lead somewhere--he made it through, after all. But part of it I can't explain. I want to smack him when he spins his wheels trying to figure out what he "wants" from life--which of us doesn't wonder that? And how many of us have three degrees and still have a deep well of choices and are still cranky about this? Suck it up and pick a life path. But somehow, I'm following him to these places, waiting for him to find the answer. Good for him for talking me into that.

But Jodi Picoult is NOT going to talk me into the typographical nightmare she's set up for me in Handle with Care.

I am reluctant but not unconvincable on the subject of stories told by multiple first person narrators. Barbara Kingsolver does an excellent job with The Poisonwood Bible, but that feature was the reason it took me over a year to get past the second chapter. Inevitably, the narration switch involves not only getting to know a new character, but leaving off some part of the storyline that you're likely just getting into.

When it's just a couple of points of view, it's not as big an issue--I can often be convinced. When there are five, you're pushing it. But when you commit the visual crime of putting each narrator's chapter in a different FONT, I will be your sworn enemy even unto death. Am I not bright enough to follow which character is which? Do you not realize how UGLY this is? The fact that the fonts have different weights, different relative sizes, serif vs. sans serif....it boggles the mind and offends the eyes. Five different fonts. I don't even like half of them.

The real crime here is how this pulls you out of the story. It reminds you of the reading you're doing, the mental and physical task, the fact that this story is words on the page, not just unfolding in my mind. Reading is something I almost can't realize I'm doing, but oh, you will insist on reminding me, Jodi, you will. And I'll be bitter for it.

I'm not even sure I'm going to read the book, as punishment for this awful crime. And I'm going to look up who her managing editor was and have words with them, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Youth Hurts

I'm not going to read 3 Willows, and I think it's at least in part because of the numeral in the title. It's a little precious. Also, the subtitle, which appears to be different on different editions of the book: "the sisterhood grows" vs. "a new sisterhood grows." Come on. You're writing a separate book; is anyone going to pretend that the editor didn't force her to include the part about the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?

But really, it's for the same reason I had so much trouble reading Just As Long As We're Together. I get so frustrated when characters have certain kinds of troubles, and in this book, Ama is being forced to spend the summer camping when she signed up for an academic enrichment program. I can't enjoy that. I'm outraged on her behalf, and yelling at her counselors in my head, even when she's having fun and meeting a cute boy. "C'mon, Ama!" I'm shouting. "Get ANGRY!"

This is not wholesome. I'm moving on.

Also, re: Survivor. Being Chuck Palahniuk has got to be a miserable experience. There is no beauty in the world he lives in, only sad, cheap, rotting things, people who are shallow and crass or deep and torn and mangled. There is nothing to live for in that world. I wonder what he's like in person.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Five Speed Literary Transmission

I'm blasting through a bunch of YA books lately--already finished 4 this month--but I think I'm hitting a wall, especially regarding the mediocre ones. Good YA is always good, but okay YA is fine when you're a kid, but hard to swallow when you're an adult. When you find yourself snarking at a book for being overly simplistic, you need to pick up something that doesn't have a reading level, something with some heft.

Example: What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell. I picked it up randomly, it had gotten good reviews and won an award. And it started out as a nice period piece, a coming of age after WWII story. But it was clearly supposed to be some sort of mystery or thriller, and I got over halfway through and couldn't figure out what it was about. Now, the coming of age stuff was pretty good, I suppose, but I got so frustrated I put it down and gave up. And then I read some more good reviews and picked it back up. And pretty quickly (that is, just past the halfway point), things started to happen and it ended up being a thoughtful and interesting book about how good and bad have a lot of shades of gray. But it hardly seemed worth it to me--wading through something so lacking in nuance for all that.

I already talked about Just Ella and my problem with princesses. Normally I don't think I'd be as ready to throw that book at a wall. I'm thinking of just returning it, but it's such a fast read and I'm already a third of the way through and I think it could be good if the moral didn't seem to be "rich people are vapid--only trust the peasants." Blasted Red Commies.

3 Willows, which Ann Brashares is trying to convince me is the Sisterhood "growing" when I'm pretty sure it's just three more girls who are friends. I mean, I loved the travelling pants. But I don't trust her to make this anything but "middle school girls are growing up and getting bras and that's haaaard." Why am I being so dismissive? I just read a Judy Blume book, and that's all she writes about. And I like those books.

I need meat. I need The Nine, by Gregory Toobin, about the Supreme Court--not a novel, nonfiction. Or American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which is a novelization of the life of Laura Bush, and doesn't that sound like a sad story. Something dense and mature and full of dry history or sex or...well, just adulthood. Something full of adulthood.

Here I go.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Very 80s Divorce

Judy Blume went through a really horrible divorce herself. Two, actually, if I remember correctly. She jumped quickly into her second marriage after her first one ended, and moved her two children across the country to be with the new husband. That marriage failed rather spectacularly, and she spent some time single before marrying her current husband.

All this is to say that she sounds like a pretty sucky divorced parent.

Just As Long As We're Together was the book she was working on when I saw her speak, which must have been in 1986. I was a student worker at my school library and the librarian took me with her to a conference where Judy Blume read from her newest book. I've never read it before, but I'm reading it now. It's actually pretty painful--I have a very hard time with books where kids are acting up because they're being treated unfairly, especially when the adults don't see it at all.

Stephanie's father moves to the west coast, but claims he's just traveling for business--her parents are split up for three months before they tell her, mostly by accident. It's ludicrous behavior--you can't keep saying, "I wish I could be there," when you MOVED TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COUNTRY FOR NO REASON. Seriously, he didn't need to go for his job, and you can get divorced without leaving, oh, let's say the tristate area. So what he did was abandon his kids. I can totally understand divorce, but that kind of thing really rips me up. You don't have to be in a happy marriage to be two good parents.

But I think this is a very 1987 kind of divorce. Dad disappears, Mom and the kids are still a family, Dad is a vacation destination. It's amazing to me that this was seen as the way to go, normal and acceptable. It's not like I know a ton of divorcees with kids, but those I do know, or know of, are WAY more worried about their parenting than they are about finding their personal fulfillment or introducing the kids to the new girlfriend within days of first mentioning the word divorce.

I can't help wondering if this is Judy Blume's poor divorce skills, the poor divorce skills of an entire generation, or just this one story. Still, it's tearing at my soul. Which, I guess, is impressive in something with a reading level of 4.9

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Truth about Princesses, plus: a Public Opinion Poll

In spite of my total lack of self-control, I managed to check out one fewer book that I returned yesterday, bringing my total count of books out of the BPL system down to 11. This is really intimidating, but I'm doing the best I can with it. The YA summer reading shelf was calling to me.

I grabbed something there called Just Ella, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and on page 2 I'm already a little disappointed. I love a good fairy tale retelling, and I liked this one--Cinderella is carried off to the palace by the prince and given lots of boring sewing and etiquette lessons, and realizes that the prince may be charming but he's not all that bright. Sounds great, right? Sadly, within the first five pages you can see that the story is going to depend heavily on nobility being snobbish.

Now, I am college educated and read a lot of fantasy, so I have a lot of ideas about being a princess. Before I had a son, I had long since decided that if I ever have a daughter, she's going to understand what it means to be a princess. It means sitting very still for long periods of time and being perfectly polite to everyone. It means not talking back or running around or doing anything fun or interesting most of the time. It means thinking of others--the whole kingdom, in fact--before you think of yourself. My daughter will only want to be a princess if she has an overdeveloped desire to serve her nation/family.

But that doesn't mean that nobles are snobs. The fact is, at the time when there were princesses and peasants, that was not only luxury you were born into, it was responsibility. You were in charge, and running a fiefdom is not going to be easier than running a business. You don't get rich running a lousy kingdom--a good king/queen/noble is going to be thoughtful, problem solving, hard working. Maybe they'll be a jerk, and likely they'll know their place, but in the real world of nobility and servants, there's no need to be a snob. Everyone's working together in the system, and it's no more snobbish to be a noble than it is to be the principal of a school. Do you think the principal turns up his nose if the cafeteria lady needs to talk to him? No, he converses with her, even though they both know that he's in charge.

So when, on page three, the etiquette instructor tells her that when she screams for a doctor to save the life of Lord Reston, she should scream, "His Excellencey Lord Reston is dying!" I was immediately turned off. I think I'll keep trying, because it looks like it could be fun. But I'm sick of the raw deal nobles get in fantasy. Of course, I'm equally sick of the idea that a nice or goodhearted noble doesn't want to be noble, and asks everyone to call them by their first name and doesn't stand on formality. The Queen can't act as a person, she has to act as a head of state, and so it is important that people be reminded that she's queen. Including her.

Wow. Who knew I had a rant in me on that subject? Okay, let's be quick on the public opinion poll: is it okay to go back and change a review? Not in the blog--I can do a new post if I want to change my opinion. But I was cruising through Goodreads recently and realized I only gave three stars to a book that, in retrospect, was better than that. At the time I read it, I didn't understand what the author was doing, but now that I've read more of her books, I get it and appreciate it. I wouldn't change my written review, except to include an addendum, but can I change my star rating after the fact? Discuss.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Edge of My Seat

I literally jumped out of my chair at the high point of The Queen of Attolia. The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, is a really good book and worth reading, but most especially so you can get to the sequel. I'm going to run right out for the last one, The King of Attolia. Circles within circles...

I'm determinedly whittling away at the library pile. I need to run to Malden tomorrow to return some things--why do I always pick Thursday for Malden, and then always pick 2:00 exactly somehow, which is when their weekly staff meeting closes the library? Duh. If I concentrate really hard, I can avoid that this time by planning ahead.

I've been adding a bunch of books I read a few years ago to my Goodreads account. I realized I only had about 175 books that I'd read in there, and when your to-read list is 150, that seems kind of pathetic. Fortunately, I've been keeping a reading journal for a while, and I did some backfilling. It's very satisfying, but it starting to feel a little indulgent. I did take the precaution of turning off notifications, so none of my Goodreads friends will get an email stating that I added 75 books and what they are.

Okay, I should have entitled this post "Miscellanea." Bedtime.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Sunny Happy Sunshine

I really love Mercedes Lackey and I don't understand how anyone else could possible. The writing is straightforward and serviceable. She makes every point explicitly and laboriously, enhanced not just by italics, but by emphatic italics. She writes dialect in the most atrocious way I've ever seen; my understanding is that good dialect is communicated 90% through word choice and only 10% through phonetic spelling. She uses phonetic spelling even on words where it does not make any difference. Every to is a t'.

But I think I mentioned recently, the main thing about her books is that everything is so neat. There's actually a passage in this one, Foundation (no relation to Asmiov's), that spells this out. Our main character, Mags, is trying to figure out why the Heralds go around being awesome heroes all the time, and his mentor (I'm not going to get into explaining Companions here; it's way too My Little Pony) says "We try to make things fair."

Mags protests that life isn't fair, and Dallen replies, "'Life isn't fair' is nothing but an excuse people make to justify bad things they do. But why shouldn't life be fair? What's keeping it from being fair? Those same cruel, mean, and evil people." This is said in all seriousness, and I think it's a main theme in her work: things are fair until someone makes them unfair, and it's up to the good guys to bring the fairness back. Nature's fairness.

This is so far off of the way the real world works that I hope nobody needs me to spell it out with words like "cancer" and "tornado." But almost all of her books believe this--that hard work always pays off. That the good guys always win. That plans come to fruition.

And not only fair, things are tidy. She's big on the details that make great worldbuilding, but her worlds actually run way better than the real world. I remember a behind the scenes feature about Star Trek that I saw once, where they showed that the futuristic stool the guy was sitting on was an apple crate with a futuristic cushion. That's what the real world is like, but her world is set with the fantasy world equivalent of futuristic stools made of as-yet-undiscovered alloys.

This sounds like hate, but it's really love. There's a beautiful, satisfying simplicity to her stories--the morality there is the morality of the world we all wished we lived in. And that's why I still read them.

That and the inside references for those of us who have read the rest of her books. I'm a sucker.

I will say, one of my favorite books of hers was The Black Swan, and one of the reasons, I realized today, is that it has the most complicated character--someone who falls in between good and evil, and discovers this. The path to redemption there is far more littered with obstacles--the bad guy is more formidable--than in any of her other books. But the palace kitchen is still run like clockwork.