October 06, 2004

Read the Book

I've got the book on my head; so now what?

"You must lurk in libraries
and climb the stacks like ladders
to sniff books like perfumes
and wear books like hats
upon your crazy heads"
—Ray Bradbury

September's reading

I can guess what you're thinking: You spent a fortune on books in September, you could have spent that on movies! Not having a fortune—in fact, having no money at all except for travel expenses and a gas-station card—I put off food in favour of discount stores and remainder bins and poking through libraries. Besides, it was hard to find time for the cinema during August and September's long road trips with hotel stays on endless highways. Since parking myself and the misbehaving car at our destination, I've had little opportunity and less energy to make it to the movies. The long dismal commute to my cold dark warren at the office will drive me to destruction if I don't hide in a book.

Escapism is not merely a way to pass the time, it's a necessity for self preservation. If you don't like being where you are, be somewhere else. My preferred place to be is at the movies. When that's not available, I Read the Book.

There was a time I would struggle through to the end of even a mediocre novel, just to see how it all turns out. I'm already slogging through a mediocre reality with a painfully obvious plot. The books I read had better be better than that uncopyedited mess. So, my tolerance for bad books has become much lower than my tolerance for bad films, which, after all, I sit through (or have sat through in the past and will sit through in future) on your behalf, dear hungry reader.

Some capsule comments, as a record of the movie-less month...

Goddess of Yesterday (2002)
by Caroline B. Cooney
A superlative departure into ancient Greece and Troy by an award-winning novelist of contemporary teen fiction. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's all I'd want my own historical young-adult writing to be. I missed my stop on the train, reading this one.

Tamsin (1999)
by Peter S. Beagle
Clever expression of the behaviour of cats is one appealing aspect of this YA ghost story. Also appealing is that it's nice and long, involves a spooky ramshackle house, and never slows down.

Perilous Gard (Newbery Honor winner, 1975)
by Elizabeth Marie Pope
illustrated by Richard Cuffari
I remember loving the illustrator of this novel when I was a kid, so the book had me halfway won over from the start. A look at the tale of Tam Lin from the perspective of an Elizabethan girl, and satisfying all the way through for its history, its mystery, and its romance. I read this one right after the less satisfying but also award-winning:

Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind (Newbery Honor winner, 1990)
by Suzanne Fisher Staples
A catalogue of cultural scenes involving a spirited young girl in a semi-nomadic family in Pakistan. A perfectly adequate, bittersweet story, and certainly eye-opening for many young readers, but its matter-of-fact pacing wouldn't have transported the young me into the story as Perilous Gard would, and did.

The Thief Lord (2002)
by Cornelia Funke
translated by Oliver Latsch
Overrated novel with a cheat at the end, but pretty spot illustrations by the author. Runaway children fend for themselves in the alleyways and canals of Venice; strangers are mysterious; and a sudden genre shift will leave some readers lost and others irritated.

Inkheart (2003)
by Cornelia Funke
translated by Anthea Bell
Recommended. A book lover's book, right to the beautiful hardcover book design. Don't let the size daunt you, no matter your age. It's shorter than some Harry Potters. Not for those who are squeamish about the fates of little animals, but neither is it gratuitous in its depictions of the cruel villains that authors unleash.

The Subtle Knife (book 2 of His Dark Materials trilogy) (1997)
by Philip Pullman
Here's a series that's been getting a lot of attention. I read the first book, impressed by the author's utterly thorough knowledge of his own world, and found myself fighting through to the end out of sheer loyalty to the beginning of the book. I listened to book two in unabridged audio, a full cast and an excellent production. The voice talent and author's narration kept me engaged through an increasingly labyrinthine plot. This story left more than this reader obsessed, and not in a good way, about an unaccounted-for cat.

The Homeward Bounders (2002)
by Diana Wynne Jones
I continue to keep Diana Wynne Jones on a far higher pedestal than J. K. Rowling, even though she can be uneven from story to story. This one is a thrilling, twisty plot—alternate realities and the games higher powers (whether alien-mystical or parental) play with our lives. Even though the ending left me perplexed, I can't get the vivid images out of my mind.

The Spiderwick Chronicles 1-5 (2003-2004)
by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
These books have become quite the phenomenon. I attended a bookstore party to celebrate one million copies sold, where I had extraordinarily yummy sheet cake. These are lovely little books that give younger (but too old for picturebooks) readers something to cherish, with pen-and-ink illustrations; but essentially it's one story split into five parts at US$9.95 apiece, which could be difficult for some parents. Good gifts, though.

Beyond the Deepwoods: Edge Chronicles 1 (2004)
by Paul Stewart
illustrated by Chris Riddell
Spiderwick after it's bulked up at the gym. Broad humour gets in the way of the picaresque plot about trolls and sky pirates and carnivorous trees, but complaining about that is like complaining about how distractingly detailed the line illustrations are. Readers looking for episodic, messy adventure will enjoy it, even if I found it hard going.

Gifts
by Ursula K. LeGuin
A mostly-masterpiece from a master-author. I found this slow to get into, then was thoroughly consumed by the culture LeGuin develops and the constraints binding a blind boy coming to terms with the magic around him. Those of you who dislike even indirect spoilers, stop here. Those of you who are curious: The ending left me sorely disappointed with the protagonists I had come to like so much. Instead of striving to find a solution that allows both personal happiness and the fulfillment of the obligation on which their people depend, the protagonists toss their responsibilities onto the backs of others who may not be able or willing to assume them. It's too bad, really.

Bindi Babes (2004)
by Narinder Dhami
Lightweight young Young Adult about a trio of Indian sisters in England. All the usual family/cultural stuff, plus a standard YA plot/subplot. Good for readers unfamiliar with the culture, but if the kids have seen Bend It Like Beckham (the novelisation of which Narinder Dhami also penned) they'll wish for a little more substance and variety. (If I'd been this book, I'd have put it, "they'll wish for a little more filling in this samosa." It's that sort of book.)

Ella Enchanted (Newbery Award winner, 1998)
by Gail Carson Levine
This perceptive and subtle novel is nothing at all like the recent movie that prominently featured Anne Hathaway's wench-outfit talents. It acknowledges that love is something that can take work to grow, not always something that switches on when the comely girl espies Mr. Right. Well deserving of its Newbery Medal. As nice as it was to see Cary Elwes reverse his Princess Bride role and play the opposite side of the coin, this story would have made a fine movie too. I hope some day it will.

Fleshmarket (2004)
by Nicola Morgan
Fascinating setting—the early 19th-century London of unscrupulous anatomists acquiring cadavers by whatever means convenient—but told through frantically uneven, repetitious writing. The manuscript needed a more dedicated editorial hand. That isn't style; it's sloppy.

I did get around to a few books that are not from the Young Adult market:

One for the Money (A Stephanie Plum Novel) (1994)
by Janet Evanovich
My mystery-reading friends love Evanovich's series about an unemployed young woman who turns to bounty hunting in spite of being utterly unprepared for a life of grit and bad hair care. I found the first novel (which is not so much mystery as crime/action) not at all my cuppa.

Skinny Dip (2004)
by Carl Hiaasen
Skinny Dip is maddeningly the same as the other Hiaasen novels I've read. I enjoy his style but I fear that once you've read one, you've read them all, with the usual riffs on the environment, politics, wealth, and greed. The plot involves revenge-seeking by a woman whose husband tosses her off a cruise ship and assumes her to be dead. Having spent so much time at the southern tip of Florida myself, contemplating whether or not to toss someone or other into a mangrove swamp, I enjoy reading an author who can apply a sardonic eye to the place; but I think I've heard these jokes before.

Best of the lot:
Hands down, Goddess of Yesterday. I immediately searched bookshop shelves for something else by this author, but this appears to be her only novel of this kind. I'm sure her contemporary novels and YA romances are well written, but I'd heartily encourage her to dip back into long-ago cultures. A talent this deft at bringing old stones to life should do so at every opportunity... my commuting survival depends on it.

On the roster for October:
There are books I rush through breathlessly; those which are a chore to finish; and those which must be saved, subdivided into smaller and smaller bits to postpone the inevitability of finishing and having no more of it left. This can get in the way of wearing books on one's head.

Unexpected Magic: Collected Stories (2004)
by Diana Wynne Jones
These short stories (plus one novella) are turning out to be more A than YA. So far, they have ranged from bland to piercingly unforgettable. I should be finished by tomorrow and seeking more.

The Game of Sunken Places (2004)
by M. T. Anderson
The author's relentless self-conscious humour might push me out of the book entirely. Each page is a bit of genuine fun with a thick frosting of "aren't I clever" in which the story and characters get lost.

The Sun, the Rain, and the Appleseed (2004)
by Lynda Durrant
A story of Johnny Appleseed from a favourite author. I've started this and then set it aside. I'm saving it up. Like an apple-cinnamon dessert.

The Story of Mankind (Newbery Award winner, 1922)
by Hendrik Willem van Loon
This was the first Newbery Award winner, and it's nonfiction. Technically. I'm reading it mostly to prove the point that one can start reading the Newbery books at the beginning and survive to the current year's book. The archaeological conclusions and social history in The Story of Mankind are far outdated, the tone sounding more nineteenth-century than twentieth, but the book gives quite a lot of insight into the assumptions and naivete of van Loon's day and a warning to presumptuous historians of the twenty-first century. Of course the pinnacle of civilisation is "our" own—and all his readers, the author assumes as he addresses them directly, are descendents of Christian Europeans. Female contribution to history is nearly nonexistent, of course, at least so far. I've just about reached the Reformation, and see long tracts covering World War I up ahead. Most of the time I'm reading this, half my mind wanders off contemplating re-covering the book jacket in a tidy protective sleeve, and next thing I know, a century has passed.

I'll have to take a break to read the trendy Devil in the White City by Erik Larson for the local reading klatsch. As you can see, I sometimes have several books rolling at once. In October, I hope also to insert a few movies.

Posted by OutsideFood at October 6, 2004 11:23 AM

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