Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top Ten Chapter Books

Fuse #8 is conducting a poll on the top 100 children's fiction chapter books, and has been inviting folks to submit their ten top choices (I came upon this by way of Tortoise Lessons). The deadline is today, so hurry over if you want to submit your own choices. Here are mine, chosen because these are the books I have read over and over again:

Charlotte's Web, White
Harriet the Spy, Fitzhugh
Apple Bough, Streatfeild
Harry Potter, Rowling
The Hobbit, Tolkein
Summerland, Chabon
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis
The Black Cauldron, Alexander
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Konigsberg
The Secret Garden, Burnett

Friday, January 29, 2010


After my spell of reading books I didn't much like, finally I settled on a book I did like-- Kristin Cashore's new YA novel Fire. It's set in the same world as Graceling, which I loved, but it's a separate story with new characters.

Fire is a "monster," meaning she has the power to read and control human minds. She's what every teenage girl would love to be--irresistibly attractive, with red hair that makes everyone go wild when they see it, a talented musician, and with a special ability to communicate with horses. Her monster father used his power evilly, but Fire benefits from his example to become a benevolent wielder of her awesome power. Along the way she learns how to love a man who is her equal in power, so she can't control his mind.

That's not what's most interesting about this novel, though. What my daughter liked were the finely drawn characters, especially Garan, a spymaster and political tactician who is introduced to Fire as a person who "has control of himself."

One thing I liked was the increasing humanization of Fire, who finally realizes on the eve of a battle that a person who has always acted weak and foolish around her knows more than she does about love and loyalty:
"'It's not reasonable to love people who are only going to die,' she said....
'I have two responses to that,' he said finally. 'First, everyone's going to die. Second, love is stupid. It has nothing to do with reason.'"

Another thing I liked were the oblique digs at what's happening in our own world (especially poignant this morning in light of the news that there's not enough money in the U.S. budget to continue exploration of the moon): "anyway, the schools are closed now; there's no money for research. Or for art, for that matter, or engineering. Everything goes to policing--to the army, the coming war."

And even though this is the kind of story in which most of the people you care about don't die, there is a bit more realism than in other sword fantasies. When Fire gets frostbitten fingers, they don't all heal; some finally have to be surgically removed. When she falls in love with a man, his daughter doesn't automatically love her, nor can she bear his child. She learns to deal with fame: "it was based not on her, but on stories, on an idea of her, an exaggeration."

There will be a third book set in the world of Graceling and Fire; Cashore says it is "tentatively titled Bitterblue." I'll be looking forward to it, because Cashore has established herself, for me, as an storyteller who doesn't disappoint. Many of us have mental lists of such authors, people whose books we buy in hardback on the day they come out, if we can. Who else is like that, for you?

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What story finds Harold the dog and Chester the cat wondering whether the new bunny in the house is a vampire?

Classics: What E.M. Forster novel depicts the battles of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes over a country house?

Non-Fiction: What Simon Winchester book traces the scientific consequences of obscure geologist William Smith's 1815 sketch of subterranean strata?

Book Club: What novel by Christina Schwarz slowly unravels how little Ruthie's mother mysteriously drowned?

Authors: What author of How to be Good did The New Yorker describe as the "maestro of the male confessional"?

Book Bag: What novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer tells of privileged Clarissa's quest to snap up a hubby?

Some of these are hard ones--how many do you know? Put your guesses in the comments!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prequels and Sequels

Among the books I read but don't always review are prequels and sequels to books I've previously enjoyed. Often I think well, I should have known better. Rarely am I disappointed enough to feel the need to complain in writing.

Recently, though, I've had a spell of disappointment in my reading diet. I read a prequel to a book I loved and found it was nowhere near as good. I read a self-published first novel by an author who had a good story to tell but needed a good editor. And then I read a sequel to a book I thought had explored some interesting and even important points of view on American politics, to find that the sequel presents only one biased, limited, and--to me at least, disturbing--point of view.

Orson Scott Card's novel Empire was both thought-provoking and a good story, so I could hardly wait to read Hidden Empire when it came out. But I should have waited... forever. Nothing can completely spoil Card's amazing ability to tell a story, but it's hard for me to enjoy a story when I don't like any of the characters. By the end of Hidden Empire I absolutely hated one of the main characters, a man I had liked and admired in Empire. He shoots down all of his former friends on a flimsy ideological pretext and then stands around shaking hands with himself and being held up by the author as a person to admire. Bullshit, Card.

I have always been willing to love Card's fiction (no matter how much of a wacko I think he is in real life), but now he's gone too far trying to turn his fiction into a sermon. I can be patient with that, like when Barbara Kingsolver did it in Prodigal Summer and next turned to writing non-fiction to produce the much better Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But the sermon Card is trying to preach isn't even a good sermon. It's a parody of the Sermon on the Mount: "blessed are the self-righteous, for they will see their way clear to blowing all their enemies to Kingdom Come." If there's a non-fiction follow-up to that one, count me out.

Stotan! by Chris Crutcher, is a prequel of sorts to Whale Talk, which I think is a terrific book. And the main character in it is a boy named Walker. Seriously, how could I not like this book? And yet I didn't, much. I don't really understand the need to train for a sport until--much less past the point that--it hurts, which is what the "stotans," a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan, do. The parts of the novel about why people are prejudiced and what's the best way to respond to tragedy or treat people of the opposite sex were done better in Whale Talk, as if it is the culmination of Crutcher's ability to work through those issues with some of these same characters.

So why am I complaining about my reading disappointments? I think every once in a while people who talk about books should talk about the books we didn't like much. We all want to talk about the books that make us glad we've read them, but if we never contrast the ones that make us feel we've wasted our time, then we sound like people who are constantly enthusiastic--maybe over stuff that others might find mediocre. So I decided to complain today, as part of my continuing effort to be a fox in the henhouse.

Have you read anything lately that turned out to be a disappointment?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dangerous Angels

As I revealed in my 20 Questions interview, I bought a copy of Francesca Lia Block's Dangerous Angels after reading Nymeth's enthusiastic review. It was one of the best decisions of my life. This is a collection of stories called the "Weetzie Bat Books" after the name of a central character. They are like nothing else I've ever read. The closest I can get to describing them is to say that the characters are like comic book drawings come to life, at first, and then the drawings turn 3-D and you get drawn into their world...

And oh how I wish I could live in their world! There's no better antidote to the long gray of an Ohio winter than reading about Weetzie's Los Angeles, full of jacaranda, hibiscus, roses, honeysuckle, and lemon trees. Any problems the characters have are sketched, because we've seen them before, but what we haven't seen is how these particular (very particular!) characters will solve them.

Reading the wordplay in these stories is a little like hearing the latest teenage slang; you may not know why Weetzie calls her dog "slinkster dog" or why she calls a man who is attracted to other men a "duck," but it does give the stories a certain flavor.

The first story, Weetzie Bat, is suffused with her love of place. It begins:
"The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn't even realize where they were living. They didn't care that Marilyn's prints were practically in their backyard at Grauman's; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer's Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor's...."

Weetzie and her gay friend Dirk look for love, which Dirk tells her is a "dangerous angel," and the search is brief and comic, while going through all the long-drawn-out and agonized stages familiar to us all. Weetzie keeps "falling for the wrong Ducks. She met a Gloom-Doom Duck Poet who said 'My heart is a canker sore. I cringed at the syringe.' She met a toothy blonde Surf Duck, who, she learned later, was sleeping with everyone. She met an alcoholic Art Duck with a ponytail, who talked constantly about his girlfriend who had died."

What Weetzie wants, she says is "My Secret Agent Lover Man," and courtesy of a wish-granting genie, she eventually meets a man who tells her that is his name, while Dirk meets a perfect Duck, Duck. (Much later, when you're so deep under the enchantment of these stories that you don't laugh in a way that would break the spell, a further joke about his his last name is revealed.)

I was charmed by the story of Weetzie Bat, and I'm not easily charmed. Then I was pulled into the next story, Witch Baby. I started caring more about all the characters when I read Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. But it wasn't until the story entitled Missing Angel Juan that I really felt like I was getting to know one of the characters as well as I wanted to. The character I got to know is the most unlikely candidate for me to sympathize with that I can think of. She doesn't have a name, but goes by the unlikely moniker "Witch Baby." She's skinny because she has to be urged to eat. She makes things difficult for herself; she can't be like the other members of her family, who have slipped into a teenager's version of the perfect world, making a living from writing and producing movies and living together in a house they inherited from Dirk's grandmother.

When Witch Baby's unhappiness becomes apparent, her mother Weetzie realizes "I won't just stop and pay attention when someone is sad. I try to make pain go away by pretending it isn't there." Witch Baby has a "broken sound inside like when you shake your thermos that fell on the cement" because her boyfriend Angel Juan has gone away to New York City to see what he's like without her.

All of the stories have wonderful descriptions of food, but the restaurant meal Witch Baby has in New York is the one I remember best:
"This place is like somebody's enchanted living room. There's flowered paper on the walls. If you look close you can see tiny mysterious creatures peering out from between the wallpaper flowers and the lavender-and-white frosted rosette-shaped glass lights strung around the ceiling blink on and off, making it look like the creatures are dancing. On every table there are burning towers of wax roses that give off a honey smell. The music isn't like anything I ever heard before. It's crickety and rivery. The waitress has a dreamy-face, long blonde curls and a tiny waist. She is wearing a crochet lace dress. She serves us tea that smells like a forest and makes my headache go away. Then she brings huge mismatched antique floral china plates heaped with brown rice and these vegetables that I've never seen before but taste like what goddesses would eat if they ate their vegetables. Miso-oniony, golden-pumpkiny, sweety-lotusy, sesame-seaweedy."
In a later story, Dirk invites a friend home for pie and his grandmother makes "chicken pot pie with carrots and peas and peach pie for dessert. When you asked Fifi for pie you got it."

I love the order the stories are told in, in this collected volume. The very last one, Baby Be Bop, tells more about the background of Dirk and his family, and it goes farther into the dark corners than any of the previous stories, although it begins with the light touch that characterizes all of the stories:
"Dirk wanted to tell her, how he wanted to tell her, but what if the tears spilled, blue, onto her cheeks? What if he hurt the one person who had loved him his whole life? What if she said,'It's just a phase' and he had to tell her, 'It's not just a phase, Grandma Fifi. It's who I am.' And why did he have to tell? Boys who loved girls didn't have to sit their mothers down and say 'Mom, I love girls. I want to sleep with them.' It would be to embarrassing. Just because what he felt was different, did it have to be discussed?"

The seeming simplicity of the story-telling style makes it possible to say things straightforwardly without the usual complications. The story of a street kid who tells his new lover that he's "not from anywhere" is accepted without question by that lover, Duck, who "had noticed some cigarette burn marks on Bam-Bam's bare, thin arms. Parents that did stuff like that to you had to become nothing nowhere in your head if you were going to make it out alive."

At the end of the volume, the genie makes another appearance and reveals the secret of his magic, a secret that most readers know and of which we all like to be reminded, just like some of us like to hear fairy tales over and over again. A story is a dangerous angel; a story is a form of love.

Who has ever told you a story? Who will listen to your stories? If there is such a thing as a book you want to read out loud to your teenager, this is it. As a parent of teenagers I can't say I always understand, even if I have managed to stop and pay attention. But I can still tell them stories. Or at least give them this one.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What children's fantasy series did Susan Cooper launch in 1965 with Over Sea, Under Stone?

Classics: Who had been declared a saint just four years before George Bernard Shaw portrayed her as a hard-headed young woman, in a 1924 play?

Non-Fiction: What longtime Harlem congressman was King of the Cats, according to a Wil Haygood biography?

Book Club: Who populated his space western The Place of Dead Roads with a gang of gay cowpokes called the Wild Fruits?

Authors: Who was the founder and sole editor of the Paris Review for 50 years, until his death in 2003?

Book Bag: What 1991 Peter Benchley book centers on fisherman Whip Darling's search for a killer Architeuthis dux?

Put your answers (and guesses) in the comments.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle

We're having a January thaw, and I've been slowly exhaling the breath I'd been trying to hold for almost a month. Despite assurances that worrying doesn't change anything, I'm almost superstitious about it. If I imagine it, it won't happen... like the joke about taking an umbrella with you so it won't rain.

This time of year is when I think more about the possibility of doom. When we have to get out from under the covers in the dark--particularly if it's one of those mornings when I've woken up at 3:30 am to the realization that I haven't called an electrician yet to look at those old wires we found connected to the fluorescent light that stays on in the utility room or finished dealing with the insurance company about the medical bill from last summer. When the sound of waking is everyone--including the cats--sneezing and coughing. During one of those icy interminable afternoons when Ron's forgotten his phone.

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house.
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.

There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.

Save him from hostile capture,
From sudden tiger's spring at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning,
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.

Every day we all return intact is one more day that our letter of ruin must still be lost in the mail. We can have incandescent light. And supper, and maybe a round of our new favorite game, Lie-brary.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two Trains

The bit of conversation I had with Readersguide in the comments about Symbolism According to Cliff's Notes reminded me of a Tony Hoagland poem that I enjoyed because it builds up and then shoots down a couple of symbolic meanings:

Two Trains

Then there was that song called "Two Trains Running,"
a Mississippi blues they play on late-night radio,
that program after midnight called FM in the AM,
--well, I always thought it was about trains.

Then somebody told me it was about what a man and woman do
under the covers of their bed, moving back and forth
like slow pistons in a shiny black locomotive,
the rods and valves trying to stay coordinated

long enough that they will "get to the station"
at the same time. And one of the trains
goes out of sight into the mountain tunnel,
but when they break back into the light

the other train has somehow pulled ahead,
the two trains running like that, side by side,
first one and then the other, with the fierce white
bursts of smoke puffing from their stacks,
into a sky so sharp and blue you want to die.

So then for a long time I thought the song was about sex.

But then Mack told me that all train songs
are really about Jesus, about how the second train
is shadowing the first, so He walks in your footsteps
and He watches you from behind, He is running with you,

He is your brakeman and your engineer,
your coolant and your coal,
and He will catch you when you fall,
and when you stall He will push you through
the darkest mountain valley, up the steepest hill,

and the rough chuff chuff of His fingers on the washboard
and the harmonica woo woo is the long soul cry by which He
pulls you through the bloody tunnel of the world.
So then I thought the two trains song was a gospel song.

Then I quit my job in Santa Fe and Sharon drove
her spike heel through my heart
and I got twelve years older and Dean moved away,
and now I think the song might be about good-byes--

because we are no even in the same time zone,
or moving at the same speed, or perhaps even
headed toward the same destination--
forgodsakes, we are not even trains!

What grief it is to love some people like your own
blood, and then to see them simply disappear;
to feel time bearing us away
one boxcar at a time.

And sometimes, sitting in my chair
I can feel the absence stretching out in all directions--
like the deaf, defoliated silence
just after a train has thundered past the platform,

just before the mindless birds begin to chirp again
--and the wildflowers that grow beside the tracks
wobble wildly on their little stems,
then gradually grow still and stand

motherless and vertical in the middle of everything.

I don't approve of the idea that a song or a poem has to be "about" something besides what it actually says; I like to read literally, at least at first. The wildflower at the end can still be a wildflower--it doesn't have to be the speaker. The speaker is putting himself in the place of the flower, maybe, and feeling the same way--left behind, trying to grow a backbone.

The only thing I like about imagining a book is about something other than what it says is the possibilities it offers for playing games like the one the kids and I were playing this morning. If the book was about any period in history previous to the 20th century, we appended "IN SPACE!" (A Tale of Two Cities...IN SPACE!) and if the book was already set in space, we appended "in Victorian London" to the title (Footfall...IN VICTORIAN LONDON!)

Can you think of some good ones along those lines?

Monday, January 18, 2010

I Had Seen Castles and A Day No Pigs Would Die

Sometimes when members of my family have appointments and lessons and shopping in the city an hour away, some of us spend some time waiting, and the place we do that is in a bookstore. This past weekend I spent enough time waiting in a bookstore to read two short YA novels, one after the other.

The first one, I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant, takes a very modern point of view on WWII. The hero, John Dante, says of himself and the young men like him "it was war I was too young for, war we were all too young for, and the reality of that is what we could not find at our dinner table. I can see us now, as we were, and I can see the fog around us. We cannot see any horror for ourselves, for Tony, for Frank, for the mailman, or for the grocer. We deceive ourselves into believing we can clean up the enemy, put him back in his place, and have our chicken parmigiana another night. Soon. A quick war and, intact, we all sit down again to eat."

John Dante has his own version of a trip into hell by fighting on the front lines, in the trenches. There he loses his youthful ardency and sees that his anachronistically peacenik girlfriend, Ginny, has been right all along. At the end of the book he says he still loves her, but he has never seen her again after the day he went off to fight. Guess he could only admit she was right to himself.

The story is a simplified prose version of Wilfred Owen's WWI poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, in which the similes work to give you a sense of the horror:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The beginning similes, in particular, work like the story Rylant tells. Rather than dashing young heroes, the soldiers look like beggars, and they cough like old women.

The second short book I read was A Day No Pigs Would Die. I sat on a wooden chair in the corner of Half-Price Books and read the whole story of the boy learning how to be a man from a father whose philosophy and way of life he thought unassailable.

The story is told in a dry, matter of fact way that makes giving the flavor of it by quoting short bits difficult. The writing has its own pace; you're led into the story in a hurry, and then you have a few minutes to look around before you have to emerge, unavoidably sadder, at the end.

I do like the occasional observations about the father. He "wasn't one to smile every year" but could occasionally carry out a good joke. And he was a man of few words: "Never miss a chance," Papa had once said, "to keep your mouth shut." So I think I'll take his advice. This is a lovely little book, a classic of children's literature, and I recommend it to you if you haven't read it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

My Day In the Sun

Check it out--I'm featured over at As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves on "451 Fridays." I reveal which books I love most and which one I would "be" in a Fahrenheit 451 universe.

I'm also featured over at Lost in Books, where I answer 20 Questions!

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Friday again, and time to play another round--this week's questions are easier than last week's, so give them a try!

Children's: What novel concludes the His Dark Materials trilogy--The Amber Spyglass, The Golden Compass or The Subtle Knife?
Classics: What detective starred in The Yellow Face, The Devil's Foot and The Engineer's Thumb?
Non-Fiction: Who was already gone in 2002 when his Journals, which included the entry "Don't read my diary when I'm gone," hit the bestseller lists?
Book Club: What W.P. Kinsella novel appeared in theaters as Field of Dreams?
Authors: Who was the only narrator Barbara Kingsolver would trust to get the Appalachian accents right for the audio version of Prodigal Summer?
Book Bag: What handbook by Mel Brooks' son Max explains how to protect yourself from the living dead?

Put your answers in the comments.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's Not That I'm Bitter

Who wants a free book? When I said yes to that question, Harriet sent me Gina Barreca's It's Not That I'm Bitter. I'm going to tell you what I thought about it and then pass it on to one person who leaves a comment indicating interest in reading it.

Since I'm an inveterate re-reader, I don't often jettison a book, but this one isn't the kind of book I usually pick up (making it my next entry in the Critical Monkey contest), and parts of it really ticked me off.

Don't assume I'm going to get all excoriating about it immediately, however. I liked reading parts of this book. I like the part where she points out that Anne Bancroft was only 6 years older than Dustin Hoffman when she played the part of the older woman in The Graduate. I like the part where she explains why the few lines spoken by Padme in Star Wars make her long for Princess Leia's snappier dialogue.

I really like the part where she says that women shouldn't try to live according to popular sayings, singling out the one that advises us to "work like you don't need the money, dance like nobody is watching, and love like you've never been hurt" and revising it to "love like you don't need the money, work like nobody is watching, and dance like you've never been hurt." (It's that last one that really gets me, of course--I wish I could!)

I would have liked the part where she says "we need to stop obsessing over hymens, husbands, and hangnails and once again direct our attention outward to the larger issues of financial equity, economic justice, and the creation of genuinely significant opportunities for women in all workplaces" except that this sentence comes near the end of a 218-page collection of essays in which she has already confessed that "I'm twenty pounds overweight and I worry about the shape of my eyebrows" (40), "I feel guilty about having another woman clean my house" (102) and that "we didn't think that telling girls they shouldn't feel any shame about their bodies or sexual urges would mean that our daughters (or our granddaughters or kid sisters) would be eagerly participating in blow-job parties at age twelve" (163-164).

The parts about weight issues, eyebrow shape, clothing choices, problems remembering to floss, and baby-boomer nostalgia are either irritating or soporific for me. Making fun of hymenoplasty is easy, Gina; it's taking responsibility for the "free love" philosophy you admit that you helped to popularize that's hard.

I also reacted negatively (as I often do) to the hand-wringing over employing a cleaning woman; if she's not paying the woman enough, why doesn't she either pay her more or fit cleaning her own house into her busy schedule? (Update: this is a burning issue in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) (I had a silent moment of schadenfreude recently when a friend who has a cleaning woman revealed that her adult daughter has never learned how to clean a toilet).

The cover of the book actually says it all--the title appears across the torso and ample hips of a woman's body in an old-fashioned full slip, and the subtitle runs in a banner across the crotch: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World."

Is there anyone else out there who already saves her worrying for issues more pressing than underwear (so to speak)?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Master and Margarita

Not being much of a literature-in-translation reader, until this winter I had somehow managed to miss a novel many call a modern classic, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (written from 1928 until 1940 and published in 1966). I got interested in it after seeing it mentioned as a book everyone should have read in Corey Redekop's novel Shelf Monkey and hearing its praises sung by Matt at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook. I began listening to it as an audiobook, and found myself playing the first cd again before I went on to the next one; the story seemed disjointed at first. Eventually, though, I began to make sense of how the storylines come together, and then I went out and found a copy, Burgin and O'Connor's new translation (1995), with the afterword that calls the narrator "wildly unreliable."

In fact, the process of reading The Master and Margarita involves figuring out exactly from what kind of perspective the reader is being shown the characters. Reading is a test, just as the actions taken by the characters are a test, of who can read--or live--while suspending absolute judgment, who can resist an easy solution in favor of continuing to sort through countless tiny details to find a more accurate picture of the world. The world in this book is not black and white; it's not always easy to tell the difference between good and evil, despite stories about Pilate judging Yeshua, who bears a passing resemblance to Jesus, and the tricks of a supernatural character called Woland, who bears some resemblance to the traditional devil, although he is more of a hanging judge for liars than a father to them.

The details of the story are delightfully absurd, from the very first time that Woland (initially identified as a foreigner, a professor, a black magician, the devil, and a madman) accurately predicts the exact moment and manner of a man's gruesome death. One of my favorite parts is Woland's magic show, in which he makes money rain down on the audience, invites ladies to try on and take home marvelous shoes and dresses, and cruelly reveals the infidelity of a man who dares to question him. Since the epigraph of the novel is from Goethe's Faust, what happens to the money and the shoes and dresses after the show is predictable.

When the bartender from the theater comes to Woland the next day to complain that the ten-ruble notes that had rained down on the audience had all turned to worthless paper in his pocket, Woland says to him
"'you are a poor man--aren't you?'
The bartender drew his head into his shoulders, so that it would become obvious that he was a poor man.
'How much do you have in savings?'
Although the question was asked sympathetically, it was impossible not to view a question like that as indelicate. The bartender squirmed.
'Two hundred and forty-nine thousand rubles in five separate savings accounts,' came a cracked voice from the next room. 'And two hundred ten-ruble gold pieces under the floor at home.'
The bartender seemed to be riveted to his stool.
'Well, that isn't so large a sum, of course,' said Woland indulgently to his guest. 'Although, strictly speaking, it is of no use to you. When will you die?'
Here the bartender became indignant.
'Nobody know that and it's nobody's business.' he replied.
'True, nobody knows,' came the same noxious voice from the study, 'but it's hardly Newton's binomial theorem! He'll die in nine months, that is, next February, from cancer of the liver, in the First Moscow State University Clinic, Ward No. 4.'
The bartender's face turned yellow.
'Nine months,' Woland calculated thoughtfully. '290,000...In round numbers that comes out to 27,000 a month, isn't that right? Not a lot, but enough if one lives modestly...And there's still the gold rubles...'
'He won't manage to cash those in,' broke in the same voice, sending a chill through the bartender's heart. "After Andrei Fokich dies, they'll tear down the house right away and the gold rubles will be sent to the State Bank.'
'And I wouldn't advise you to go to the clinic, either, [Woland] continued. 'What point is there in dying in a ward, listening to the moans and rasps of the terminally ill? Wouldn't it be better to spend the twenty-seven thousand on a banquet, then, after taking poison, depart for the other world to the sound of violins, surrounded by intoxicated beautiful women and dashing friends?'"

Less predictable than the turning of the money to scraps of worthless paper is the effect of the cream one of Woland's associates gives to Margarita (introduced late enough to make me wonder about her prominence in the title). Rather than having some kind of unfortunate Faustian effect, the cream makes her young, beautiful, and able to fly on a broomstick, and her willingness to at least attempt to treat each guest as graciously as the last makes her the Queen of "Satan's Grand Ball," an affair at which the guests appear from the fireplace:
"suddenly there was a loud crash in the enormous fireplace at the bottom of the stairs, and out popped a gallows with a dangling corpse half turned to dust. This dust shook itself off the noose, fell to the ground, and out jumped a handsome black-haired fellow in tails and patent-leather shoes. Out of the fireplace slid a small, semi-rotted coffin, its top flew off, and another clump of dust formed itself into a fidgety, naked woman in black evening slippers, with black feathers on her head, and then both the man and the woman began hurrying up the staircase" where Margarita and one of Woland's associates greet them.

Margarita is the only character I know of in literature who, when she is offered the chance to make a wish, not only takes it, but makes a good enough wish that the spirit of it is granted. She wishes to be reunited with the Master, a writer who has been driven crazy by taking too much to heart what a literary critic says about his published writing, and she gets what she wants.

I think that the reader essentially passes the test set by this book, no matter how much of the satire has gone over her head, if she can appreciate the pathos/humor in the epilogue--which includes (among other things) a fairly lengthy description of cat persecution in the wake of the antics of Woland's shape-shifting cat associate Behemoth. One cat, whose troubles are described at length, "was untied and returned to its owner, after, it's true, having gotten a taste of trouble first hand--a practical lesson in the meaning of mistaken identity and slander." As if no one has any more responsibility for being targeted for persecution than a cat, who might look "furtive. (So what can be done if that's the way cats look? It's not because they're guilty, but because they fear that creatures stronger than they--dogs or people--will harm them in some way. And that's not hard to do, but it's nothing to be proud of, I assure you. No, not at all!)"

Actually, trying to read this immensely clever Soviet-era satire makes even one of the jokes about "Soviet Russia" that have recently been popular around my household seem to come true: "In Soviet Russia, books read YOU!"

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Willoughbys

When my children were small, the thing that got me through the eight-thousand- nine-hundred-and-eleventh reading of Goodnight Moon was reading Boom Baby Moon by Sean Kelly. Similarly, I could cope with Pat the Bunny because of Pat the Beastie by Henrik Drescher and Pat the Stimpy by Ren Hoek. So when I heard about Lois Lowry's The Willoughbys, a parody of classic children's books, I knew I had to read it.

After spending my own childhood with the books listed at the back of The Willoughbys as "books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children" (to which I would add Half Magic and The Penderwicks, after reading them to my own children), I was quite conversant with the conventions of stories about plucky and under-supervised children, and pleased to find that Lowry doesn't miss a one.

In the first chapter, a baby is left on the doorstep of the Willoughby family house and we are told
"this happens quite often in old-fashioned stories. The Bobbsey Twins, for example, found a baby on their doorstep once. But it had never happened to the Willoughbys before. The baby was in a wicker basket and wearing a pink sweater that had a note attached to it with a safety pin.
'I wonder why Father didn't notice it when he left for work,' Barnaby A said, looking down at the basket, which was blocking the front steps to their house."
When they tell their mother about the baby, she says "Take it someplace else, children."

Later the parents have a conversation after the children have been sent to bed. The mother is knitting and the father, who is holding a newspaper, asks
"Do you like our children?"
"Oh, no," Mrs. Willoughby said..."I never have. Especially that tall one. What is his name again?"
"Timonthy Anthony Malachy Willoughby."
"Yes, him. He's the one I least like. But the others are awful, too. The girl whines incessantly, and two days ago she tried to make me adopt a beastly infant."

The Willoughby children leave the baby at a house down the street, the house of "Mr. Melanoff--called Commander Melanoff for no particular reason except that he liked the sound of it" where he
"lived in squalor. Squalor is a situation in which there is moldy food in the refrigerator, mouse droppings are everywhere, the wastebaskets are overflowing because they have not been emptied in weeks, and the washing machine stopped working months before--wet clothes within becoming moldy--but a repairman has never been summoned. There is a very bad smell to squalor."

Admittedly, the definition part reminds me of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, but it's just one of Lowry's many techniques for making fun of the conventions of classic children's books. There's also the name the children pin to the baby, Ruth, because they are Ruthless (that goes at least back to Arthur Ransome's heroine Nancy), the stack of unopened letters that turns out to reveal a surprise, the unlikely reunion of the only two members of a family who wanted to be reunited, and the eventual adoption of the Willoughby children by Mr. Melanoff (who has changed because of Ruth), and the children's nanny, who has married him.

It won't take you long to read this one, and if you're still at the stage of needing to be refreshed in between readings of the same old books to your children, it can restore your equanimity.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mary Poppins Comes Back

Most of the birds that have been attracted to my outside bird feeder are what Mary Poppins would call "sparrers." They're little brown birds. One of them has already been caught, killed, and dragged through the cat door into our kitchen. I hope the rest will take warning. It has been great cat entertainment to have a bird feeder hung on the other side of the window from where the parakeet cage used to hang. The cats hide among the potted plants next to that window and peer out, obviously having jungle cat dreams.

The only bird that much assuages my longing to see color and hear chirping is the male cardinal. It's snowed just about every single day since I put the bird feeder outside my window, so there's been lots of action out there.

I keep thinking of Mary Poppins when I see the little brown ones. Nymeth's recent post on reading the first P.L. Travers book made me realize that not everyone has already read the books as children, so here's the excerpt I keep thinking of--from Mary Poppins Comes Back--in which a new little sister to Jane and Michael holds a conversation with two birds:

"Good girl!" croaked the Starling approvingly. He cocked his head on one side and gazed at her with his round bright eye. "I hope," he remarked politely, "you are not too tired after your journey."
Annabel shook her head.
"Where has she come from--out of an egg?" cheeped the Fledgling suddenly.
"Huh-huh!" scoffed Mary Poppins. "Do you think she's a sparrer?"
The Starling gave her a pained and haughty look.
"Well, what is she then? And where did she come from?" cried the Fledgling shrilly, flapping his short wings and staring down at the cradle.
"You tell him, Annabel!" the Starling croaked.
Annabel moved her hands inside the blanket.
"I am earth and air and fire and water," she said softly. "I come from the Dark where all things have their beginning."
"Ah, such a dark!" said the Starling softly, bending his head to his breast.
"It was dark in the egg, too," the Fledging cheeped.
"I come from the sea and its tide," Annabel went on. "I come from the sky and its stars. I come from the sun and its brightness-- --"
"Ah, so bright!" said the Starling, nodding.
"And I come from the forests of earth."
As if in a dream, Mary Poppins rocked the cradle--to-and-fro, to-and-fro with a steady swinging movement.
"Yes?" whispered the Fledgling.
"Slowly I moved at first," said Annabel, "always sleeping and dreaming. I remembered all that I had been and I thought of all I shall be. And when I had dreamed by dream I awoke and came swiftly."
She paused for a moment, her blue eyes full of memories.
"And then?" prompted the Fledgling.
"I heard the stars singing as I came and I felt warm wings about me. I passed the beasts of the jungle and came through the dark, deep waters. It was a long journey."
Annabel was silent.
The Fledgling stared at her with his bright inquisitive eyes.
Mary Poppins' hand lay quietly on the side of the cradle. She had stopped rocking.
"A long journey indeed!" said the Starling softly, lifting his head from his breast. "And, ah, so soon forgotten!"
Annabel stirred under the quilt.
"No!" she said confidently. "I'll never forget."
"Stuff and Nonsense, Beaks and Claws, of course you will! By the time the week's out you won't remember a word of it--what you are or where you came from!"
Inside her flannel petticoat Annabel was kicking furiously.
"I will! I will! How could I forget?"
"Because they all do!" jeered the Starling harshly. "Every silly human except--" he nodded his head at Mary Poppins--"her! She's Different, she's the Oddity, she's the Misfit-- --"
"You Sparrer!" cried Mary Poppins, making a dart at him....
"I don't believe you! I won't believe you!, cried Annabel wildly.

But Annabel does forget where she came from, when she begins to learn to speak to other Humans.

Birds are fierce little things, and I'm glad that the local varieties are getting some unexpected food at my window during these extra-cold and snowy weeks, even if I feel like I should post a "beware of cat" sign for potential diners. What do you think of a cat owner who attracts birds to her yard? I wasn't sure that it was a good idea, but so far one death seems to me an acceptable loss, given the harshness of the winter.

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers
Today, a new edition of the game that lets you see how much book trivia you've got in your head!

Children's: What third-grader is called "Superfoot" and "Egghead" by Danny, the boy she calls "Yard Ape?"
Classics: What Bombay-born author glorified the British military in his Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three and Barrack-Room Ballads?
Non-fiction: What does G.O.A.T., the title of a 75-pound, $3,545 photo tribute to Muhammad Ali, stand for?
Book Club: What classic character did Gregory Maguire's Wicked reimagine as a misunderstood green-skinned girl named Elphaba?
Authors: What author's bronze likeness graces an Annapolis monument to victims of the slave trade?
Book bag: What David Baldacci debut thriller concerns the murder of a billionaire's young wife, as she fights off the drunken advances of the U.S. president?

Put your guesses in the comments!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Noah's Compass

Yesterday after meeting my class I went to a shopping center in the big city near the college I commute to because I'd seen a beautiful peacock scarf there this past weekend and had finally come up with a good rationalization for why it had to be mine. (Now it is; see my new profile photo.) And I can't go to a shopping center without visiting the bookstore, and of course can't leave the bookstore empty-handed, so I came home with the new Anne Tyler novel, Noah's Compass, and finished it before I went to bed last night.

I think Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is Anne Tyler's masterpiece, and that the one right after it and the four right before it are almost as good. I didn't like the last seven or the first four novels nearly as much, so I wasn't expecting a lot from this new one. I thought maybe I just wasn't old enough yet to sympathize with her older characters. (Here's a list of Anne Tyler's novels in case you don't have the order memorized!)

But then I met Liam Pennywell, and he's a lot like me, even though he is older. Here's how we're introduced to him:
In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job. It wasn't such a good job, anyhow. He'd been teaching fifth grade in a second-rated private boys' school. Fifth grade wasn't even what he'd been trained for. Teaching wasn't what he'd been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don't ask."
I know so many people lately who feel a bit like that--"oh, don't ask." One of them has a PhD in philosophy and has been laid off from her job as a young adult librarian since last summer. Three of them have been looking for work for over a year. Another, of course, is me. I have part-time jobs, but none of them are what I was "trained" to do or how I thought I was going to make my mark on the world. What Liam is facing-- like the rest of us--is the distinct possibility that he's never going to make any kind of mark.

Liam is having issues with memory after a knock on the head, and at one point wonders why his sister can remember more than he can about their childhood. He wants a "rememberer," someone who can remind him of things. I actually have rememberers; I have Iris for high school memories, Miriam for college memories, and recently I've started calling on Laura for graduate school memories.

Also Liam's reaction to one of his daughter's attempts to share her religion with him is similar to my reaction in a similar situation:
"He refrained from telling her that even talking about religion made him wince with embarrassment. Even hearing about it embarrassed him--hearing those toe-curling terms that believers employed like share, in fact, and my faith."

Occasionally Liam makes a grand gesture, like telling the woman he loves that he can't live without her, but he doesn't follow up on that gesture and lets her go. I don't identify with him there at all; in fact, his rigidness and passivity irritate me. Later he does make a grand gesture with one of his daughters, though:
"In desperation, he pushed his chair back and slid forward until he was kneeling on the patio. He could feel the unevenness of the flagstones through the fabric of his trousers; he could feel the ache of misery filling his throat. Xanthe froze, gaping at him, still holding her dishes. 'Please,' he said, clasping his hands in front of him. 'I can't bear to know I made such a bad mistake. I can't endure it. I'm begging you, Xanthe.'"
The gesture is just what was needed. The theatricality of it reminds me of the time my parents were sitting in a booth in a restaurant and my mother pushed my father's shoulder away in annoyance; he made himself fall out of the booth and onto the floor, just to exaggerate how hard she'd pushed.

Noah's Compass is a quiet and occasionally bleak story, but the undercurrents seem to me to bring it closer to the magic of those novels from Tyler's middle period. Liam thinks "we live such tangled, fraught lives...." and who can't identify with that? Every morning and evening I'm holding my breath while my 16-year-old continues learning to drive in the snow that keeps falling every night. Fraught, yes, and in a year or so I probably won't remember it. But that doesn't mean it doesn't push at my life in a certain direction.

Are you one of those lucky people who had a plan for what you were going to do when you grew up and got to follow it? Or are you like Liam and me, who got knocked off course and ended up in places we never expected to go?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Very Hard Choices

I was reading Spider Robinson's Very Hard Choices on the airplane home from our Christmas trip, and it was entertaining enough to get me through the travails of broken luggage wheels, strange women demanding to look down the front of my pants, and snow delays.

This novel is a follow-up to his previous Very Bad Deaths, and it will increase your enjoyment if you've read that one, although it's not essential. Very Bad Deaths told the story of how a physically frail old hippie and a young Canadian cop work together to help a friend of theirs and how the friend ends up saving them from a fate far worse than death. The story is narrated by the old hippie, Russell, who (as usual in Robinson's writing) talks a lot about how much he loves coffee and marijuana and is a Person To Look Up To because of how tolerant he is. At one point, the cop, Nika, clarifies Russell's moral quandry about what to do next by telling him that something bad is about to happen and that "The rest of your life, you'll either be someone who tried to stop it, or someone who didn't." Our hero. But the fun of the story is aptly summarized by Russell's description of Nika's face, at one point: "her eyes lit up with excitement at the same time that her eyebrows frowned in skepticism."

In Very Hard Choices, the story is complicated by the presence of Russell's estranged son and by a plot that hinges more on the right way to live than on how to avoid death. Russell's friend, the one who previously saved his life, is a telepath, and there is an evil government agent out to catch him and make him use his abilities for evil--or so they all think. The government agent, at the very end, turns out to have a few surprises of his own.

My favorite part is when, after two pages of Russell browbeating himself about what he didn't do, his friend, Zudie, loses patience:
"Listen to me. You're absolutely right: the cartoon superheroes in the adventure fiction you love to read would all be disgusted with you. At this very moment, Jack Reacher is curling his lip, Hawk is saying something ironic about you to Spenser, and Travis McGee thinks you're helpless as Meyer. Okay? You're a total failure as Superman. The Saint would be ashamed of you. Parker thinks you're a pussy. Accept that. Deal with it on your own time. Right now, you're in the real world: work the problem."

The other part I enjoyed most is the typical Robinson message about where our hope lies, which is why reading this book was such a good antidote to my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This is what Robinson's government agent says when the characters finally stop running from him and start listening:
"We have a century or so, tops, to get this stupid planet organized, to build the kind of wise benign compassionate Terran Federation you see in so many science fiction movies, to start making the world fair, and get it self-sustaining. If we haven't gotten at least that far by then, the resources necessary to develop and build and maintain the necessary space-based technology will be gone, pissed away in pointless squabbles. Then everything falls to shit, and the future holds only tribal anarchy and progressive decay....
On the evening of September 10, 2001, the United States was closer than any other nation in history has ever come to being widely trusted. That's not very close, granted. Many people despised us. Quite a few just disliked us. But deep down, most people trusted us, on that day, at least a little. No other nation every had a better shot at persuading and cajoling all the nations of the world to come together and work together to save ourselves before it's too late.
And ever since the next morning, we've been blowing it. Setting fire to a century of built-up good will, frightening half the planet and offending the rest."

Trust me that the rest of the story is so fun that you'll hardly notice serious parts like that, at least not consciously, while you're trying to get to the end. It's the best kind of fiction, if you ask me--with an agenda, but only on the side.