Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Marcelo in the Real World

I read such a good review of Francisco Stork's novel Marcelo in the Real World at Jenny's Books back in March that I knew I had to read it, so when I found it at the library, I pounced on it and finished it before the day was out. I thought it was a charming little novel and a quick read for a summer's day. It was refreshing, like a popsicle.

It seems like everyone has been reviewing this novel lately, and I don't have a lot to add except that for me, the charms outweighed most of the problems that have been pointed out, like that the villain is two-dimensional. I think because Marcelo--who describes himself as "on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum"--isn't as interested in other people as many are, some of his attitude rubs off as the novel goes on. And it seems to me that sometimes simplifying an issue for someone gives you a better understanding of it, like when one of Marcelo's adult friends answers his question about how people can use sex to hurt each other:
The ways we use sex to hurt each other are innumerable and unspeakable. Anytime we treat a person as a thing for our own pleasure. When we look at another person as an object and not as a person like us. When sex consists solely of taking and not giving. When a person uses physical or psychological force to have sex against another person's will. When a person deceives another in order to have sex with them. When a person uses sex to physically or emotionally hurt another. Any time an adult has sex with a child. Those are some of the ways sex becomes evil."

The same kind of simplifying works for me again when Marcelo discusses ethical issues with the girl whose suffering has made him aware that there are such issues:
"It cannot be that this is the first time I realized this, but it is. We all have ugly parts. I think of the time in the cafeteria when Jasmine asked me what the girl in the picture was asking me. How do we live with all the suffering? We see our ugly parts, and then we are able to forgive, love kindness, walk humbly."

I like the way that, by the end of his story, Marcelo finds a way to live without either ignoring other peoples' pain or being overwhelmed by it.

Reading something this straightforward or doing something simple is a good way for me to see the world differently. A long-standing joke among my friends is that while we all do sedentary, intellectual work for a living, we dig ditches for fun--we go to the beach and build sand castles. We're serious sand castle builders, as you can see from my photos (above).

Also, I like red popsicles. What's your favorite flavor?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

For the record, every time I saw the title of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan I thought it was one of the least inviting titles for a YA novel that I'd ever seen. Yes, there are two characters named Will Grayson and they meet. But then I got to page 307 of this 310-page book, and I immediately loved the title; it actually kind of brought tears to my eyes.

The circumstances under which I read the book certainly contributed to my enjoyment of it; every two years I go with a group of college friends to one of the many barrier islands around Charleston, South Carolina and we rent a couple of houses, go to the beach every morning, see the sights some afternoons, eat at seafood restaurants, and play card games or drink and chat most nights. It's always a perfect week, and this year the weather was also perfect--hot and sunny every day. We were coming back from dinner one night, six of us, and I said "I sleep so deep[ly]* here, and I don't think it's just the drinking...." Amid the laughter came a challenge to "put THAT on your blog" to which I've just responded.
*I said "deep" which is fine in conversation, but looks like a mistake when it appears in writing.

Anyway, there were nine people staying in our house, and I kept reading a bit of Will Grayson, Will Grayson while waiting for someone to walk somewhere with me or for my turn in the shower.

Even though I don't agree with this snotty adolescent view, I enjoyed coming across it:
"now, if there's anything stupider than buddy lists, it's lol. if anyone every uses lol with me, i rip my computer right out of the wall and smash it over the nearest head. i mean, it's not like anyone is laughing out loud about the things they lol. i think it should be spelled loll, like what a lobotomized person's tongue does."
If I ever type "lol" it's because I really am laughing out loud, as I did at that passage.

I also like the adolescent take on what the other Will Grayson's living room is used for:
"the room where the nonexistence of Santa is revealed, where grandmothers die, where grades are frowned upon, where one learns that a man's station wagon goes inside a woman's garage, and then exits the garage, and then enters again, and so on until an egg is fertilized...."

What I love most about this novel is the transformation of the lower-case Will Grayson's view of love and possibility. He goes from the kind of clueless--and not very well-read--adolescent who thinks that other people can live in a
"musical cartoon world, where witches like maura get vanquished with one heroic word, and all the forest creatures are happy when two gay guys walk hand-in-hand through the meadow, and gideon is the himbo suitor you know the princess can't marry, because her heart belongs to the beast. i'm sure it's a lovely world, where these things happen, a rich, spoiled, colorful world, maybe one day i'll get to visit...."
to the realization that maybe the world that the lover he has rejected keeps offering him is actually a real world, if he has the courage to help dream it up and believe in its magic.

I simply can't fail to love a novel in which an adolescent character is capable of making this kind of distinction between philos and eros:
"I don't want to screw you. I just love you. When did who you want to screw become the whole game? Since when is the person you want to screw the only person you get to love? It's so stupid, Tiny! I mean, Jesus, who even gives a fuck about sex?! People act like it's the most important thing humans do, but come on. How can our sentient fucking lives revolve around something slugs can do."

Most of all, given my circumstances, sharing a house with people I've known since college, with all our kids going off together to the lower level and getting along so well we occasionally called them up to see a little more of them, I loved the passage in which upper-case Will Grayson says to his friend Tiny
"I want you to come over to my house in twenty years with your dude and your adopted kids and I want our fucking kids to hang out and I want to, like drink wine and talk about the Middle East or whatever the fuck we're gonna want to do when we're old."
And that is exactly what Ron and I were doing, with two other couples who are married to people of the opposite sex and one same-sex couple who have been together for sixteen years and would like to be married. We talked, sunned, built sand castles, walked, ate, and drank wine.

And I finished reading this excellent book, whose excellence is not only due to the circumstances of the reading, although those were pretty close to optimum, in the world I'd created for myself: hot and sunny, beside the ocean, with some of my best friends. What are the basic components of the happiest "musical cartoon world" you can imagine for yourself? And how often do you get to be there?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What was the best-selling hardcover children's book ever, by 2001--Green Eggs and Ham, Pat the Bunny, or The Poky Little Puppy?

Classics: What novel spins the tale of the four March sisters?

Non-Fiction: What rocker's famous excesses did Sandy Troy detail in his 1994 biography Captain Trips?

Book Club: What Margaret Drabble novel centers on a feminist author who turns up missing from her British seaside town?

Authors: What Novel Prize-winner no doubt pleased typesetters by abbreviating his first two names, Vidiadhar Surajprasad?

Book Bag: What hard-boiled private investigator dates a feminist therapist named Susan Silverman?

Friday, June 18, 2010


Taking a week off to reconnect with nature.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What's Wrong With the World

What's Wrong With the World, by G.K. Chesterton (1910) is a book I wouldn't ordinarily read; Ron put it in my hands at the beginning of last summer, when I was looking for books I thought I'd disagree with. It took me about a month of last summer and a few days of this summer to finish plowing through it, but finally I have. This is my last book for the critical monkey contest. I still have a list of a few books that friends thought I'd disagree with, so I may continue to read and comment on those from time to time, but I'm going to slow my pace!

Most of what Chesterton thinks is wrong with the world is that the family is disintegrating. It's hard for me to argue with him on the big points, especially because he makes them so charmingly. I have trouble finding a place to disagree when he says:
"Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can anyone contrive to talk of 'free love'; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he 'drew an angel down' and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man."
Of course I would like--out of habit, if nothing more--to take issue with his use of the word "Nature." I hate it when people defend what they're doing by saying it's "only natural." But I do believe there are consequences attached to sex, and am not convinced that my belief-- arising from my disdain of the baby boomers' declarations of "free love" during my formative years--is merely old-fashioned, as Chesterton's turn-of-the-century opinions so often seem to me.

His stance on women wearing "trousers" (he doesn't like it) or on why women shouldn't want the right to vote (because their role as keepers of home and hearth should leave them free to be generalists, rather than the kind of specialist you have to be in order to compete in public life) strikes me as--to use the gentlest word--dated. Indeed, I'm sure this is part of why Ron knew I'd disagree with the book.

The part where I most agree with Chesterton is about education, as he points out that "the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him" and that teaching is more than "drawing out the dormant faculties of each person," that a teacher must instill knowledge. Chesterton even seems ahead of his time when he declares "you will hear venerable idealists declare we must make war on the ignorance of the poor; but, indeed, we have rather to make war on their knowledge. Real educationists have to resist a kind of roaring cataract of culture. The truant is being taught all day."

The parts that charm me have a thread of humility in common (less rare than I'd expected in a book that proposes to diagnose what is wrong with the whole world). I was disarmed by the part of the dedication to a friend in which Chesterton refers to
"the many arguments we have had; those arguments which the most wonderful ladies in the world can never endure for very long. And, perhaps, you will agree with me that the thread of comradeship and conversation must be protected because it is so frivolous. It must be held sacred, it must not be snapped, because it is not worth tying together again."
In fact, I am less fond of argument than Ron and other male friends, and there's nothing that makes me bristle faster than the claim that their animated arguments are somehow more important than the more conciliatory discussions I prefer. So the admission that such arguments are "frivolous" disarms me completely.

What Chesterton says about Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer, strikes me because of a recent discussion I had about why I could like Johnson despite the way he phrases some of his opinions:

"If anyone wishes to see the real rowdy egalitarianism which is necessary (to males, at least) he can find it as well as anywhere in the great old tavern disputes which come down to us in such books as Boswell's Johnson. It is worth while to mention that one name especially because the modern world in its morbidity has done it a strange injustice. The demeanor of Johnson, it is said, was 'harsh and despotic.' It was occasionally harsh, but it was never despotic. Johnson was not in the least a despot; Johnson was a demagogue, he shouted against a shouting crowd. The very fact that he wrangled with other people is proof that other people were allowed to wrangle with him. His very brutality was based on the idea of an equal scrimmage, like that of football. It is strictly true that he bawled and banged the table because he was a modest man. He was honestly afraid of being overwhelmed or even overlooked. Addison had exquisite manners and was the king of his company; he was polite to everybody, but superior to everybody; therefore he has been handed down forever in the immortal insult of Pope--
'Like Cato, give his little Senate laws
And sit attentive to his own applause.'
Johnson, so far from being kind of his company, was a sort of Irish Member in his own Parliament. Addison was a courteous superior and was hated. Johnson was an insolent equal and therefore was loved by all who knew him, and handed down in a marvelous book, which is one of the mere miracles of love."

Okay, maybe it's easy to win me over with declarations of love for 18th-century literary figures. But Chesterton wins me over and over, repeatedly, persistently. He'll say something general that offends me and then he'll follow it up with an observation so specific I can't help but agree.

I didn't finish What's Wrong With the World with the impression that Chesterton's recommendations would work in today's world, but I did finish with a sigh for his example of the family of a little red-haired girl whose hair has to be cut short because of a law made by people who don't see that "the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair." In a world where lice have been making a comeback in public schools and bedbug infestations are making the first page of my regional newspaper, many of Chesterton's pronouncements just don't seem quite dated enough.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker, is the first book by her I've ever read, and I got interested in reading it because of an enthusiastic review by Jenny.

I literally couldn't put it down. I kept trying, because I had other things to do--at one point Ron pointed out that I'd said I was coming in the kitchen to help him make some food for a party we were going to that evening, and I meant to finish a paragraph and then go do it, but that paragraph led to another, and every time I went back into the room where I'd put the book down, I'd forget everything else I meant to be doing. (I did manage to make some guacamole, watch the U.S. tie England in the World Cup and play a card game called Plague and Pestilence before finishing the book.)

The plot begins with a five-year-old girl in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition (ha, nobody expects that!) who is selected to join "The Company" and made into an immortal genius, one of a number of agents who travel back in time to save things that would otherwise be lost. This story begins with the girl, Mendoza, now 18 and traveling back to Tudor England as a botanist charged with saving some rare plants, among them one that can cure a certain type of cancer in the future. It's interesting to see how she fears the frailty of mortals--at a point only 13 years removed from them--like the driver of her coach:
"He was young, there were no traces of alcohol or toxic chemicals in his sweat, his vision was normal, heartbeat and pulse rate normal, muscular coordination above average. He did have an incipient abscessed tooth, but he wasn't aware of it yet, so it wasn't going to distract him from his task."

The way the luggage of the time travelers is disguised is also interesting: "everything issued to a field agent is disguised to look like something else. Even Joseph's book of holo codes for Great Cinema of the Twentieth Century was bound in calfskin with a printer's date of 1547."
But when Mendoza drops her "calfbound copy of the latest issue of Immortal Lifestyles Monthly" in front of a mortal chambermaid, she and fellow agent Nef have to convince the chambermaid that the picture of a robot she has just had a glimpse of is something foreign:
"'Do not be afraid, good Joan. It is what we call in Spain an iron maiden. You have such things here, have you not, to punish the wicked? In this book it doth depict the torments awaiting sinners,' she said firmly, scooping up the magazine and snapping it shut. 'For shame, thou, Rosa. Holy monks labored a year to paint this missal for thee, and wilt thou carelessly drop it?'"

The connotations of the title are not wasted, coming in for their most explicit treatment in a temper tantrum thrown by Mendoza in six different languages. Ideas about perfection and immortality run throughout the story, usually in both historical and time-traveler context, as here:
"In the sixteenth century, Christmas was celebrated from Christmas Day to January 6. In future times, of course, it would shift forward until it began in November and ended abruptly on Christmas Eve, which is how it was calendared at Company bases. I observed the Solstice by climbing from bed to watch the red sun rise out of black cloud, and marked his flaming early death that evening through black leafless branches. So the mystery passed, and the mortals hadn't even begun their celebration yet."

One of my favorite parts is incidental, a description of one of the dishes served at a Tudor Christmas celebration:
"When it hit the table, everyone really stared: it looked great, a sort of sweet rice pilaf, a big mound of rice and nuts and raisins, but all around the edge of the dish were perched big insects sculpted out of almond paste."
When the agents ask why the bugs are there, one of the servers explains:
"Please you, signior, but you said that we must have syrup of locusts to pour about the top, signior, and we had it not, wherefore Mistress Alison made locusts out of marchpane."

This is a fascinating story full of incidental delights. Although I'm still getting the term for Baker's "company" mixed up with the term for Iain Banks' "culture," I think reading a few more novels in each series will clear that up, and now I'm definitely going to read everything I can get my hands on by Kage Baker.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Mavis Jukes book about loss lets young Austin recall when he and his grandparents made a pie as a late-night snack?

Classics: What did Louisa May Alcott title her lesser-known sequel to Little Women?

Non-Fiction: What 1985 Tracy Kidder tome is divided into sections titled "The Contract," "Architecture," "Wood," and "In a Workmanlike Manner"?

Book Club: What Margaret Atwood bestseller includes a novel-within-the-novel entitled The Blind Assassin?

Authors: What psychologist was inspired to write The Best Revenge after witnessing an interview with death row inmate Gary Davis?

Book Bag: Who spent nine books chronicling battles between the forces of Chaos and Amber?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You

When Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, recommends a book on motherhood, you can be sure I'll listen. Last month she recommended Amy Bloom's collection of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, as one of her "three books for a more honest mother's day," and I was reading my copy during the long, long wait at the orthopedist's office for Walker to get the cast off his arm (he was reading a chess book, so we were both happy).

The title story, first in the volume, is the jewel of the collection. It's hard to remember the last time I read something so perfectly shaped and faceted (maybe David Sedaris' essay Laugh, Kookaburra).

The story begins by telling about a person named Jane Spencer who "collects pictures of slim young men" including "a pictorial history of Kevin Bacon, master of the transition from elfin boy to good-looking man without adding bulk or facial hair." Then it turns to what happened "the summer Jessie Spencer turned five, she played Capture the Flag every day with the big boys." The relationship between Jane and Jessie is described as "a mutual admiration society of two smart, strong, blue-eyed women, one five and one thirty-five, both good skaters and good singers and good storytellers."

Jane is proud of her daughter, clearly superior to all the other children at play group, although she "sometimes worried that Jessie was too much of a tomboy." Then came first grade, when Jessie was upset because she was required to use the girls' bathroom, and after that her dismay with the dress for a wedding Jane found for her, "pleased that she'd found something in Jessie's favorite color [navy blue] without a ruffle or a speck of lace."

It's not until driving home from the wedding, to which Jessie wore a boy's navy blazer and gray pants, that "Jane knew she had managed not to see it." Really, though, who would see, in this day and age, that Jessie was anything more than a girl with a mind of her own? I have a daughter who, as a kindergartener, also favored navy blue and refused ruffles or lace. But what has happened to Jane, she thinks, is that being told she has a daughter was a "great joke...oops. Looks like a girl but it's a boy! Sorry. Adjust accordingly."

The rest of the story is about Jane taking Jessie to the "best gender-reassignment surgeon in the world." She compares Jess favorably to the other children there, and herself to the other parents. Looking at "a shellacked glittery girl with a French manicure and pink lipstick" and at his father, who looks like a General, Jane thinks:

This man protected his slight fierce boy, steered him into karate so that he would not be teased, or if teased, could make sure it did not happen twice. Loved that boy, fed him a hot breakfast at four a.m., drove him to tae kwon do tournaments all over Minnesota and then all over the Midwest. They flew to competitions in Los Angeles for ten and eleven, to Boston for under thirteen, then to the National Juniors Competitions, and there are three hundred trophies in their house. That boy is now swinging one small-ankled foot, dangling a pink high-heeled sandal off it and modeling himself not on Mia Hamm or Sally Ride or even Lindsay Davenport (whose dogged, graceless determination to make the most of what she has, to ignore everyone who says that because she doesn't look like a winner she won't ever be one, strikes Jane as an ideal role model for female transsexuals) but on Malibu Barbie. And the General has to love this girl as he loved that boy, or be without."

The story ends with Jane thinking that "she doesn't want her life to contain any more irony than it already does." But as any mother knows, it's not up to her.

What have you seen children do that their mothers never expected?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Redoubling Our Efforts

Today is the first day of summer at my house, defined by the fact that no one had to get up before daylight arrived. Walker got his cast off this morning, and we were going to go swimming, but have decided to wait until the end of the week, hoping it will warm up. Even if it doesn't, we have a trip to South Carolina to look forward to pretty soon; it's always satisfyingly hot by the time we get there. I love hot weather! And I love a lull in how busy a household with teenagers can be.

Like all parents, sometime in May I start thinking I need a clone just so everything gets done and each child has one parent for each awards assembly (have you ever been to one where the child is asked to point out his parents and he has to admit sheepishly that they're not present? I have.) When I read Bob Hicok's poem "Redoubling our efforts" I was in that needing-a-clone mode. I still have work to do (a stack of finals to grade, an annual report to write before we go on vacation), but I don't have to coordinate everyone else's schedule at the same time I'm trying to get it done. There's a chance I can actually do a task, cross it off my list, and then sit back for a moment and consider it well done, rather than already be running for the next thing, already overdue.

Anyway, here's a poem for the overly-committed:

And a double would be handy.
While I talked to Charlie yesterday
as he fixed the leak in the hot water heater,
my double could have gone to Charlie's house
and slapped his son, who wants to join the army,
infantry no less.

But I hear you, Noam Chomsky.
Violence as a means of ending violence is illogical.

Sometimes I think there are three of you, Mr. Chomsky,
or four, given how busy you are
saying and writing smart things, though my wife
has issues with the one of you
who doesn't believe in Israel, being Jewish herself
and trusting there are structures in the brain
that crave a homeland. I know you like the brain too
is why I'm comfortable getting into this
with whichever Noam Chomsky does the brain thinking,
probably Noam Chomsky One.

I'm not smart enough for Bob Hicok Two or Bob, The Sequel,
maybe I'm a prequel of myself, I sometimes sense
a presence running ahead of me, saying hurry up,
that there's a rocket over my head, a kind
of diacritical like the umlaut over the a
in doppelganger, suggesting the way to pronounce my name
is really whoosh.

So Charlie's tooling away, he's got this crescent wrench
as big as Noam Chomsky's thigh, he's taken the nipple valve
off and found the leak, we're talking about the army
and then somehow the Klan, which he saw as a child,
they gathered on a highway east of here, hundreds of men
dressed like beds, and we're each of us saying
the country might have stepped over the line
into fascism, and I'm thinking, I could send my double ahead
to the future to find out, to warn them, and stay here
and eat my double's share of ice cream and enjoy
his share of investigating the topography of my wife,
and Charlie fixes the leak and leaves and the cats
come out of hiding, and I'm walking by a mirror and noticing
the guy walking by the other side of the mirror, and I stop
and he looks at me like I bet it's better in your world
and I look at him like I bet it's better in your world.

So we're tied, you see, the two of us, when it occurs to me
that either one or both or all of us should be driving
to Noam Chomsky's house with enough pencils and paper
to work this all out, the why do we kill each other stuff
and the where does language come from stuff.

The only answer I want when the night taps me on the shoulder
and asks, did you try, is yes, yes sir, hard and double hard
and harder still.

For now, I've hung up my book bag that says "May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one." But I've hung it on a hook where I can see it. I'll find another use for it; I know I can find another even though I've already tried hard and double hard. I can try harder still.

Even if you're not on the kind of academic schedule that lets you change gears in the summer, what kind of good intentions and plans do you have for the next couple of months?

Monday, June 7, 2010

American Subversive

I got to the Kenyon College Bookstore soon enough after David Goodwillie's book signing for his first novel, American Subversive, to buy one of the remaining signed copies, and have been waiting for summer to read it, as it sounded to me like a thriller. Which it is, with satiric bits on suburban complacency and political pragmatism thrown in as seasoning, plus a romance ending that doesn't ring true but makes the mystery end more cosily.

The narrative switches back and forth between Aidan, a disaffected blogger, and Paige, a committed subversive. Aidan speaks for my generation (she said, blogging, self-consciously):

"I'd grown up with parents who'd once believed change was possible, if only in increments, small measures and token gestures. But the increments never added up. The sixties drifted further into the past, its idealism became the material of memoir--this is what we did before we grew up. My father gave in. My mother became irrelevant. What was the lesson in all this? That you couldn't shape the world in your image. And it was a waste of time to try."

Paige, on the other hand, seems to me to speak for a younger, more cynical and activist generation:

"I'd been working to reform a culture and country that changes imperceptibly if it changes at all. A system built on compromise and control, where there's no room for idealism, for grace....Here was one last chance to embrace that grand idea that things could get better, that they would get better, if we set out to make them so. What was the alternative?"

The "last chance" is to blow up a business with whose practice Paige and her compatriots do not agree.

Inevitably, of course, Aidan is forced to stop merely commenting and take a stand, and Paige is forced to disagree with the increasingly violent methods of her fellow subversives, allowing the two of them to meet somewhere in the middle of the plot: "I glimpsed common ground between us--that deep and abiding distrust of the media. But Jesus, the ways we'd gone about addressing it!" They have a preachingly obvious discussion of their attitudes towards "unacceptable circumstances" in modern America before Aidan throws his lot in with hers and spends the rest of his life underground, with the help of a seemingly endless parade of former radicals who are true, in the end, to their romantic streak.

It's a thrilling adventure story--halfway through I didn't want to put it down--and its unexpected achievement is to make the reader care about what happens to Paige, a terrorist by any other name.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What magical item does Sylvester the donkey hold in his mouth so he can turn himself into a rock, in William Steig's classic children's tale?

Classics: What best-selling political expose spawned a 1976 sequel called The Final Days?

Non-Fiction: What former police chief recounts the search for Maryland's serial sniper, in Three Weeks in October?

Book Club: What Michael Ondaatje novel sends a forensic anthropologist to dig up skeletons in Sri Lanka?

Authors: Who added to the mystery of his illustrated stories by sprinkling in anagrams of his own name, like Raddory Gewe and E.G. Deadworry?

Book Bag: What heroic crook returned to Richard Stark crime novels after 23 years, in the 1997 novel Comeback?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Magicians

When The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, first came out in 2009, the New York Times review said it was "Harry Potter for adults," and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness calls it "hedonistic Harry Potter,"** so when I saw it on the audiobook shelf at the library, I checked it out for my commute and had an unusual--almost unprecedented reaction--I wanted to spend more time in the car. When the paperback came out last Tuesday, I went to the bookstore on my way home from work and bought two copies--one for me and one to give away to a friend. And then, although I wanted to finish listening to Mark Bramhall reading it out loud, I couldn't resist reading the ending. Finally I checked out the audiobook again so my family could listen to it this summer.

I loved this book starting with the description of the main character, Quentin, on the second page: "Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first."

On the fourth page is the first description of the Fillory books by Christopher Plover (although Plover has a website, he's Grossman's creation). Bearing a self-conscious resemblance to C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, the five Fillory books "describe the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a magical land." Quentin read them in grade school and "he never got over them." When he is selected to attend Brakebills* college of magic--not without explicit reference to Harry Potter--he finds that he's far from the only one there who still loves the stories about Fillory.

Quentin's magical education is the subject of Book One. He goes through five years of school without ever finding out what his "discipline," or magical specialty is. I hoped that he would discover it in Book Two, when he and his friends graduate and move to Manhattan, or in Book Three, where they travel to a magical place. Book Four, however, opens with Quentin musing about the curtains at the window of his sick-room:
"They were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity. As he lay there Quentin's uppermost thought was that these were authentically coarse-woven curtains, woven by people who didn't even know that their way was special, and whose way was therefore not discounted and emptied of meaning in advance."
Quentin never does find his discipline. He does find the answers to some of his earliest questions, though, and at the end he flies out a window in search of more adventures.

The story is full of tantalizing glimpses of what Quentin could be and what he could do:
"For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire something, it will become substance. If you despise it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a madman in that respect."
But he's always becoming, never mastering his art, never achieving a goal except to see a bigger one looming just over the horizon. Quentin literally learns to fly to the moon, but it's not enough. This is a book about living your life as if it can eventually become part of the stories you love, and a little bit about how to start making up your own stories and fitting them into the vast fictional universe. Like Sam Gamgee approaching Mount Doom, Quentin and his friends are continually trying to figure out who will tell their story, and what part each of them will play.

Like all really great stories, it makes you want to put yourself in the place of the characters and share their experiences. There are the kind of animal episodes that even Disney couldn't resist using from The Once and Future King. There are a couple of students who don't get invited to the magical school but are determined to get there anyway--as if any of us could actually have a chance.

Who wouldn't want to go to Hogwarts, Narnia, Camelot, or Oz--even if the work you are assigned is difficult, and your heart's desire isn't what you thought it would be when you get there?

*if you look at the Brakebills website, you'll see that "Tuareg necromancy" is offered.

**Update: Grossman is still waiting for someone to call the book "Dirty Harry." Can't believe I missed that one.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Summer Reading List

A friend of mine asked for a summer reading list, and I've been thinking about what should be included. Today is the first day of June--which seems to me the first day of true summer--so time's up, the list will never be ideal, and here are some of my thoughts.

First I thought about the kind of brief summer reading list I often make for my kids. This summer Walker's assignment is to read the Sherlock Holmes stories so he can keep up with the rest of us in conversation. Eleanor's is to read the rest of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes stories by Laurie R. King, because she has so far only had time to read the first one.

Thinking about the Laurie King series made me think about how many different mystery series I would recommend for light summer reading. Since taking Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to the pool one summer and finding that only there could I finally enjoy it, I don't save light reading for the beach--in fact, often I do the opposite, taking something complicated that I haven't had time to sustain interest in during the school year.

But here are some summer reading suggestions for people who are looking for a few light, fun books that aren't too taxing. I compiled this list by going downstairs and taking paperbacks off the shelves for a friend who just had a knee replacement and needs some entertainment while she's recuperating. I didn't include some of the goriest or darkest murder mysteries, because even though they can be fascinating, they don't fit my "light, fun" criteria. Many of these are earlier works in a series that I think went downhill later, so beware--an author's inclusion on this list is not an endorsement of the entire oeuvre!

Lorna Landvik:
Patty Jane's House of Curl
Tall Pine Polka
Welcome to the Great Mysterious
Your Oasis on Flame Lake

Ruth Reichl:
Garlic and Sapphires
Tender at the Bone

Carl Hiassen:
Strip Tease
Native Tongue
Skin Tight
Double Whammy
Tourist Season
Stormy Weather

Faye Kellerman:
The Ritual Bath
Sacred and Profane
The Quality of Mercy
Milk and Honey
Day of Atonement
False Prophet
Grievous Sin
Milk and Honey

Margaret Maron:
Bootlegger's Daughter
Southern Discomfort

Diane Mott Davidson:
Catering to Nobody
Dying for Chocolate
The Last Suppers
Killer Pancake
The Cereal Murders

Elizabeth George:
A Great Deliverance
Payment in Blood
Well-Schooled in Murder
A Suitable Vengeance
For the Sake of Elena

MFK Fisher:
Here Let Us Feast
The Art of Eating

That's enough to get a discussion started, I think. If each person who reads this would add some favorite titles to my list, I think we'd have a decent start for anyone who wants suggestions for summer reading.

Daughter of Elysium e-book

During the month of June, the publisher for Joan Slonczewski's Elysium Cycle, Phoenix Pick, is offering free access to the e-book version of Daughter of Elysium via the catalog, PPickings, with this coupon code: KQ25S.

Here is a chance to read an outstanding work of science fiction for free.