Sunday, May 30, 2010

BSC Redux

I've brought my sister-in-law over to the dark side--I bought her a Baby-Sitters Club book at the library book sale last weekend.

I've written before about the relationship I have with the BSC, and how I have to reread their stuff occasionally. Lately, though, it's been about searching out new ones. I've noticed that, later in the series, they (I don't say "she" in reference to the author, because even Ann M. Martin couldn't have written the literally HUNDREDS of BSC books, BSC mysteries, Baby-Sitter's Little Sister, BSC Super-Specials, etc. that she cranked out, not even in the 20 years she's been running) -- sorry, where was I? Oh, yes, they started teasing stories from book to book, and having longer story arcs.

So I've been tracking Stacey's rift with the BSC, which begins, appropriately, in Stacey vs. the BSC. At the end of that book, Stacey quits the club! And my oh my, I was not ready for that to be it. I had to know more! So I went through the $.25 rack at the library book sale and picked out what I thought was the right set of books. I got Stacey's Big Crush, and though I couldn't pick it up there, I made a note that Claudia's Freind Friend was the next one to check out. Because certainly that's where she re-friends Stacey, right?

But no, gentle readers! Alas, I was on the wrong trail. That was about Claudia befriending a kid with a learning disability. No, I wanted Stacey and the Bad Girls. And I finally found it, and read it (took about 2 hours, but I was also feeding the baby). And boy, were those girls bad! They stole and drank and weren't real friends at all. And I hope it's not a spoiler to say that it all ended up okay and Stacey is back in the BSC. So not to worry.

As BSC books go, this was really pretty good. It had a good amount of tension, and some realistically not-great teenaged girls. I can truly say I enjoyed it.

Though I have to say, whoever illustrates the covers better get the memo that Stacey is supposed to be glamorous, not just cute. That's a "mane" of blond hair, not just light brown drab, my dear.

Now, I just need to keep Stephanie on a steady diet of BSC, until she's caught up with me. Turn to the dark side!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Trying Something New

As Linden pointed out, I don't always need to buy a book to read it again. That's usually my threshold, but this time, I went to the library and picked up Robin McKinley's Chalice to reread it. And I loved it again, and read it in one day this time--it's not a long book. That worked out really well. I guess I'm kind of surprised at how surprising that is.

I might try that with Ursula Leguin's Lavinia as well. It doesn't haunt me quite as much, but it has a very similar feel, of a high fantasy story told through the small, mundane tasks of gathering honey and drawing water. They are books that are almost as much about becoming familiar with the small lives of their characters--outer lives, not just inner ones--as they are about the high events of the plot.

I really loved rereading Chalice. It was not unpredictable or startling, just very satisfying.

I wonder if I'll be able to say something similar about the Baby-Sitters Club book that's waiting for me on reserve!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

That's Where The Name Comes From

"It should be observed here that men should either be caressed or crushed; because they can avenge slight injuries, but not those that are very severe. Hence, any injury done to a man must be such that there is no need to fear his revenge."

Would it surprise you to learn that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that? No, I didn't think so. Seriously, I would never have thought that you could surprise me with how Machiavellian Machiavelli was, but here you have it.

Slow reading, but full of choice, practical, amoral tidbits like this. Really, it makes sense; if you're going to run a city-state singlehandedly, ruthlessness is not optional.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I don't know how to say this without sounding horrible, so I'll just come out and say it: the Holocaust can be boring.

Ugh, I know, I know, right? But you know what I mean, Dear Reader--you know how many novels take wartime Europe as their setting, how many times the story has been told, each time with its own details, its own texture on the fine scale, but each time with the same bitter arc, each time with the same tragic point: Nazi-occupied Poland/France/Germany was a really, really awful place to be.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, by Louise Murphy, is subtitled "A novel of war and survival." Well, yes, that's what it's about. It's pretty straightforwardly about that: a Jewish family, on the run from the Nazis, sends two little children to hide in the woods while the parents draw their pursuers away. They're told to call themselves Hansel and Gretel, and never to tell their Jewish names. They're taken in by an old woman known as the local witch. It has the shape of the fairy tale--she hangs bread on the walls of her house to show generosity to the birds--but turns a lot of stereotypes on their ears--the stepmother makes enormous sacrifices for the children's safety. It's well written; there's nothing wrong with it.

But I can't say I like it all that much. I've read this before--frigid Polish winter, not enough food, terrorists in the woods, SS officer, hunger, fear. It feels so distasteful to say it, but I know this story. And aside from the shape of the fairy tale, this book isn't really bringing anything new to it for me. It almost feels like nothing's happening, because everything that's happening is exactly what I expect to have happen.

I need to go do something virtuous now, to feel less like someone who doesn't care when little children are starving.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ah, High School

I'm mostly not into YA that captures the truth about what it is to be a young adult, mostly because, well, I'm not suffering from that particular affliction anymore (hallelujah) and it often runs to depressing. I don't mean to be dismissive, because I think books like that do important work for people going through a really difficult time. But the way I relate to those issues is both distant and excruciating, and I'd just as soon not, thanks.

So Thirteen Reasons Why is not my typical YA read. I already explained how I was sucked in by their marketing, and I'm still enjoying listening to the excerpts from the tapes as I go through the book. But of course, it really has to stand on its own as a novel, and I think it does an okay job of that. Actually, a better job than a lot of YA "issue" books, in my opinion.

It's the story of a guy listening to the tapes that are basically his classmate's suicide note. In the tapes, she explains how it came to this for her. What I find interesting the number of levels on which it looks at the high school social experience.

There's Hannah's explanation of being the subject of gossip, especially when it's wrong. It's interesting to see how she kind of deconstructs the whole experience. She sees through a lot of the bull. But there's another level on which Clay (the listener) has it up on her--he sees through some of her perceptions. Since she killed herself, she obviously ended up at all the worst conclusions about everything she saw, but he sees another level where sometimes, if Hannah had reached out, or even accepted others' reaching out, things could have been different.

At the same time, there's another layer of storytelling in Clay's narrative. Because he's describing how he wanders around and interacts with some of his classmates as he listens to these tapes, and you can see him completely missing their inner lives, skimming over them as background noise where there is clearly depth that he's missing. And you see how this happened to Hannah, and how only because she killed herself does he have the luxury of imagining a different outcome.

The levels of observation that author has embedded in the book are really skillful, and I'm impressed. It's very good for a teen issue novel. But I'll tell you the truth; it doesn't really transcend what it is. If you asked me if I'd recommend it to a teen interested in stories like this--absolutely, yes, I think they'd be enthralled. But would I recommend it to an adult? Sad to say, probably not.

Friday, May 07, 2010

A Team of Advisors Working Around the Clock

I'm sure I've shared with you my love of advice columns. I'm sure that people who know me in person understand how firmly I like to give advice, even when I just barely know what I'm talking about. I've also got the voyeuristic streak of someone who spends too much time with fiction, and I love the condensed form of life's weird and wonderful and awful permutations that is the advice column.

I think my current favorite is Carolyn Hax. I also read Ask Amy, Miss Manners, Savage Love (um, not work safe), The Ethicist, and (God help me because she's awful) Dear Abby. Plus assorted chats and, really, anyone who offers personal advice. Occasionally I'll read a pet advice column, if one crosses my path. Or parenting, work--seriously, I'm a junkie.

And when these columnists compile their work, I generally eat it up. Miss Manners' collective works are a particular favorite. Somehow, though, in spite of this--proclivity? obsession?--I was surprised at how much I liked The Good, the Bad, & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations, by Randy Cohen of Ask the Ethicist fame. I liked the book even more than I like the column, which is surprising, since it's really just a collection of columns.

The thing is, advice columns are less about the advice than they are about the problems. And in most advice columns, at least 75% of the time, it's easy to know what the right thing to do it. "Dump him." "Stop nagging." "Drink less." "Lock the door when you're in the bathroom, then, dummy!" I don't blame people--it's always easier to see the answer to someone else's succinctly summarized problems than it is to figure out how to change your own sprawling and messy life.

The neat thing about the Ethicist, though, is that his problems are often more stymieing.* Not always--he gets his share of questions where the answer is "Just don't be such a jerk." But there are so many places where rules (an honor code, a movie theater's no-food policy) conflict with what might seem right or kind (not ratting out a friend, bringing a bottle of water to a movie).

The problem I usually have with the column is Randy Cohen's hokey sense of humor. His jokes read like Great Uncle Horace's attempts to jolly up Thanksgiving dinner. Just corny. In the column, it often grates on me, and makes him feel less than sharp. But looking at his answers in volume, as with the book, the thought that he puts into some of these answers, and the insight that they reflect cumulatively, become more noticeable. This relegates the corny humor to something more tolerable--a charming quirk, rather than a lack of comedic insight.

A quick read, and definitely right up there on my list of "advice column collections I've enjoyed." At the very least, you'll get a few conversation starters out of it.

*Seriously, the word spell check claims I'm not making up are often startling.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

YA Sprawl

Sometimes when I go on a long stretch of really light reading, I can't seem to get my head together to blog about it. It's all from the gut around here. Anyway, I've been reading up a storm, and had some good hits.

The big thrill has been The Merry Misogynist, by Colin Cotterill. It's the most recent Dr. Siri mystery, and I think it's the best one since the first, maybe even the best one period. There's a supernatural thread that runs through the series, and in some books it's a little overwhelming--extended dream sequences, drug trips, and spirit world adventures generally make for a bit of a slog in my opinion. Dr. Siri's are more fun than most, but eventually I want to get back to corrupt bureaucrats and cranky villagers.

This most recent book is great. It's got a dash of the supernatural, but it by no means dominates the story. It's clear which threads of the plot are major and which are minor, and it's an all-around satisfying (if light) mystery. Oodles of fun.

I've also been reading Betsy-Tacy and Tib, which is the second of the Betsy-Tacy books. It's very sweet, though really a little kid book. I suspect I'll read it to Adam when he's bigger--though the characters are all girls, none of their adventures are particularly girlie. I'm interested in reading how the series evolves--it follows the girls as they grow up, and matures with them. I've heard that, after the little kid ones, the high school one, Betsy was a Junior, is the best. I'm not sure if I'll skip ahead or try to read on through.

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, is another one I've just finished. It's a very standard-seeming book about a free-thinking high school girl who's in touch with herself and not susceptible to whe whims of the crowd, and the boy who loves her but can't handle her individuality. It's a little on the after-school-special side--a story for another generation, where the quirky girl is startling. If it was a period piece, something more from the '70s, I'd get it more, but it's more modern, and so feels clunky. What I will grant it, though, is that it leaves me seriously wanting to send anonymous cards to my neighbors and strangers I pass in the grocery store, just to cheer them up.

The Dream Maker's Magic had all the usual Sharon Shinn magic, the telling of small details of life, the person transformations. Loved it. Also Caroline Cooney's They Never Came Back, which is a small, personally told story about the mystery of a girl whose parents fled fraud charges and left her behind. It felt slight, but I enjoyed it; one of those books that doesn't really transcend the fact that it's intended for young adults, but does its job.

That's what I was doing while I wasn't blogging last week. Let's see what happens during this next period of slacking!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Marketing Push

This is the story of how I was sucked in by a book commercial.

I was pottering around Goodreads, which is what I do with myself in my spare time. An ad popped up in the margin, as they often do. Since at least 40% of books that pass in front of my eyes sound at least marginally interesting for at least a minute, I look at the ads.

I'd heard of this book--Thirteen Reasons Why--though I can't remember where. It sounds grim--in the wake of a girl's suicide, her classmates and acquaintances receive tapes that explain why she did it. Intriguing, but not really my style. But the image was good, and gave the impression of something suspenseful. I clicked.

But the website, kids, the website! It's got a ton of material on it, and it's very slick. What sold me, though, were the tapes, which you can listen to. I listened to the beginning of the first one, and I wanted to listen to more. But what's the tape without the story?

So I got the book. At the library, of course--sadly, no one made any money on the transaction. Still, someone was doing her job in the marketing department. I'll let you know if the book was worth it.