Ilsa Bick: Ashes

For someone who professes not to like YA, I sure do seem to be reading a lot of it lately. I can’t help it. My daughter keeps handing me books and telling me that I “have” to read them. Well I am not normally a pushover, but when my daughter shoves books at me I am powerless, completely powerless, to resist.

In my last post I complained that the author created false suspense by withholding information from the reader that the characters knew. Well that sure wasn’t a problem in Ashes, because the main character was completely clueless, and every piece of the puzzle that she solved, we solved right along with her. In fact, if anything, it was the other way around, where I had my suspicions about certain things well before she did. (Now that’s a whole different thing, isn’t it. Suspense created when you know what’s going on but the character does not. That can be truly unbearable… in the best possible way!)

Anyway, Ashes is a zombie post-apocalypse dystopia kind of thing. If you don’t like that genre, I would definitely skip this book. It is very dark, very violent, and has an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. The worst, freakiest part of the book is not the zombies but the human settlement *shudder.* It reminded me of that movie The Village, which despite its flaws couldn’t be beat for sheer spooky atmosphere.

However, what was really weird about Ashes was that it ended extremely abruptly, leaving so many plot threads dangling that the story felt completely unbalanced. There was no real climax, nor any denouement. The reason why Becca wanted me to read it, in fact, was so that I could share her frustration and puzzlement. “I just hope she’s planning to write a sequel,” said Becca, annoyed.

So I did what I always do when I am frustrated and puzzled, which is to visit Google. I found out right away that Ashes is book one of a planned trilogy, with Shadows and Monsters forthcoming. Ok! Phew!

But that got me thinking. I realized it is relatively rare that I read a newly-published first of a series. I can think of a few other series that I read as they came out — No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games — but in all of those the individual volumes are just fine as stand-alone novels, even as they leaving you dying for more. That is not the case with Ashes. I think the publisher should have waited until she had written all three and then published them in a single volume.


Hannah Roberts McKinnon: The Properties of Water

I don’t normally gravitate towards YA fiction, but when my 12yo daughter hands me a book and says “Mom, you have to read this” that is my cue to drop whatever else I am doing and read that thing.

The Properties of Water is a book about deep issues: family, siblings, tragedy, grief, denial, acceptance. It’s about a girl, Lace, whose older sister Marni is gravely injured in a diving accident. The whole family has to readjust their priorities, their worldview, their relationships, etc. The author doesn’t pull any punches. Lace’s attempts to come to terms with what happened feels very real. She spends most of the summer in denial — refusing to swim or even go near the lake where the accident happened, refusing to visit her sister in the hospital, distrusting the new housekeeper who assists them while the mother stays at the hospital, etc. But gradually she comes to accept the new order, and learns that the properties of water include healing as well as hurting.

There were two things I really loved about this book. One was the close relationship between the sisters. My own relationship with my sister was very very similar to theirs, and I could totally relate to both the love and the friction between them. They had me teary-eyed at times, and regretting (not for the first time) that my own sweet daughter only has brothers.

And the second thing I loved was the water. I myself am a water baby. I can’t get enough of the stuff, whether I’m in it, on it, or drinking it. Ocean, river, lake, pond, kiddie pool, bathtub — water is my element. Says Lace: “The lake is everywhere, soaking our beach blankets, sucking our toes, suffusing the air we breathe. Growing up on this lake, Marni used to say it was in our blood.” Yes, I have no problem believing that Lace’s relationship with the lake could be deep and complex and fraught.

I do have a gripe though. I really did not like the way the circumstances of Marni’s accident were only gradually revealed, even though the entire story takes place well after the fact. At the beginning of the book, all you know is that Marni and her mom are not there. You know there’s been a tragedy, but you don’t even know if they are alive or dead. Gradually you discover that the tragedy was a diving accident, that it was the cute boy that rescued Marni from the water, that she is in the hospital in another town, etc. It is only in the last 30 pages of the book that we actually get to meet Marni and learn that although she suffered a traumatic brain injury, she will be okay. Perhaps the reason the author parcelled out this information so gradually was to illustrate Lace’s gradual acceptance of the situation, i.e. we don’t learn “what happened” until Lace herself is able to think about it. However, this is a huge pet peeve of mine — withholding information from the reader that the character knows. I always feel like the author is manipulating me, getting me to keep reading by creating unnecessary suspense. Becca noticed this too, by the way — it was one of the reasons she wanted me to read the book in the first place. It was frustrating not knowing, especially since a book with these kinds of themes does not need to be suspenseful to keep you interested.

In which a goofy trivia book leads to serious discussion topics

Well it has been a little while since I checked in here. Both the holidays and the flu intervened with my best-laid plans. You’d think by now my family (kids aged 8, 12, 15) would be able to do stuff without me constantly directing traffic <eyeroll>, but it turns out the older they get the more I am needed.

Anyway, while I was sick my husband made one of his massive trips to the library. My dear hubby has (undiagnosed) ADD which means, among other things, that he is quite an impulse shopper. I dread his trips to the grocery store because he always goes over budget and, what’s worse, comes home with all kinds of strange crap that we will never eat. Like powdered gravy mixes. Or weird tropical fruits. However, for the same reason I love it when he goes to the library because he always comes home loaded down with all kinds of strange books that I will happily consume. Books that — like powdered gravy mix — shouldn’t even exist. Ha ha, maybe I should do Library Loot posts about his hauls.

Anyway, one of the books he came home with was this unauthorized book about the New York Times bestseller lists, published in 1994 and now, not surprisingly, out of print. So no indiebound link for this one, alas. However, if your library has it, you can find out fascinating facts like what author had the shortest name (Amy Tan — only six letters total!), or that the only authors with the name Smith were Betty (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Lillian (Strange Fruit), and they were consecutive #1s in 1944.

When I first flipped open the book I landed on page 154 and learned something that I actually do find fascinating. Are you old enough to remember the book Gnomes? I was in junior high when that book came out and ohhhhhhhh did I love it. Like all the other pre-teen girls I pored over that book, admiring the charming illustrations and straight-faced encyclopedia-style presentation. I didn’t really believe it, but it was so close to believable that it made my heart ache a little.

Anyway, page 154 of this goofy trivia book has something very interesting to say about Gnomes, which hit #1 in December of 1979. It turns out Gnomes didn’t just hit the #1 spot — it hit the #1 spot for nonfiction. That’s right, I said NONFICTION. The book explains:

As Ian Ballantine tells the story, when Gnomes made the list, the Times called him up to ask if it was fiction or nonfiction. He thought they were putting him on, so he said, “If it’s all true, then of course it’s nonfiction. And if it isn’t true, then it’s satire, which is also nonfiction.” The Times agreed, and Gnomes is officially nonfiction.

Is that not absolutely priceless?

So I have two discussion questions.

1. Is it true that satire is considered nonfiction? Should it be?

2. Should reference works about fictional topics be considered nonfiction?

What do you think?

“Little did he know” – thoughts on third person omniscient narrators

I am remembering the scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction where Will Ferrell meets Dustin Hoffman. That is the movie where Will Ferrell is convinced that he is not a real person but just a character in someone else’s novel. He hears a voice in his head which narrates everything he does. All the doctors think he is simply crazy, having auditory hallucinations. Finally he visits an English professor (Hoffman) who dismisses him also… until Ferrell starts to repeat aloud some of what he is hearing. I’m sorry I couldn’t find a clip on youtube because it is brillliant. “Little did he know,” Ferrell begins, and Hoffman instantly snaps to attention. This phrase — little did he know — changes everything. I wish I could remember the exact line, but basically the English prof says that no mere crazy person would hear voices narrated in the third person omniscient; this proves beyond all doubt that the voice Ferrell hears is truly the author’s.

Stranger Than Fiction was an otherwise humdrum movie, but that one scene was absolutely marvelous and I think about it quite often. Because I just love “little did he know.” I would much rather read third person omniscient than any other. First person narration, particularly in the present tense, is a huge turn-off for me. Unreliable first person narration, even more so. Not saying I won’t read it, but it better be really good, ya know? I can forgive a lot more if a book is written in the TPO.

I imagine the reason why TPO narration is so fun to read is because in reality we are all stuck in our own first-person heads. We can never know someone else’s perspective. We can never know consequences in advance. There is no “little did he know” in real life. The best we can do is dip into a book.

The reason I am thinking about this right now is that A Visit from the Goon Squad is unfolding in a very interesting manner. I started it with some trepidation. The back of the book says it is about an “aging punk rocker and record executive” and “the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and it has “music pulsing on every page.” This is not subject matter I would normally gravitate towards. But guess what. Each chapter (so far — I am only on p. 89) is told from a different character’s point of view, and takes place in a different time. An adult character that is not much more than a cameo in one chapter may be the teenage protagonist in the next. Part of the fun of reading this is wondering who the next chapter will focus on. AND there is plenty of little did he know. Example:

Lou and [23-year-old] Mindy dance close together, their whole bodies touching, but Mindy is thinking of Albert, as she will periodically after marrying Lou and having two daughters, his fifth and sixth children, in quick succession, as if sprinting against the inevitable drift of his attention. On paper he’ll be penniless, and Mindy will end up working as a travel agent to support her little girls. For a time her life will be joyless; the girls will seem to cry too much, and she’ll think longingly of this trip to Africa as the last happy moment of her life, when she still had a choice, when she was free and unencumbered. She’ll dream senselessly, futilely, of Albert, wondering what he might be doing at particular times, how her life would have turned out if she’d run away with him as he’d suggested, half joking, when she visited him in room number three. Later, of course, she’ll recognize “Albert” as nothing more than a focus of regret for her own immaturity and disastrous choices. When both her children are in high school, she’ll finally resume her studies, complete her Ph.D. at UCLA, and begin an academic career at forty-five, spending long periods of the next thirty years doing social structures fieldwork in the Brazilian rain forest. Her youngest daughter will go to work for Lou, become his protégée, and inherit his business.

I love this passage for a number of reasons. One, it sheds light on Mindy’s current situation and gives us a window into her personality. Yes, she’s young and dumb, but she’s not a total idiot. Lurking within her now is the responsible introspective adult she will become and that changes the way we feel about her now. Two, it demonstrates the painful results of not being able to see the consequences of our choices, of not having TPO narration available to us. And three, it gives us, the readers, the satisfaction of “little did he know” — of being able to see what’s going to happen to someone else.

What’s your favorite narrative mode?

Library Loot, and a moratorium

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I have a pretty big stack of unread library books right now. I just picked up three more that I’d had on hold, and I hereby declare that I will not go to the library or put anything on hold until the books I have now are read and/or returned.

Today’s haul:

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad. My book club is reading this. I have read mixed reviews. The woman in my club who picked it is head over heels in love with it. She is an English prof who has been teaching the book at the community college. Hope I like it; hope I can think of something interesting to say about it when the time comes.

Michael Crummy: Galore. My best friend has been raving about this book for weeks. I have a feeling I’m in for quite a ride. Magical realism, set in Newfoundland!?!?

Brigid Pasulka: A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True. This is a nice surprise. I don’t really remember placing a hold on this, but it looks great. One of the blurbs calls it a “great literary love story.” Great cover, too. All righty then!

Monday reading: classic sci-fi

Well I am discovering all sorts of fun memes here in bookblogland! Sheila from Book Journey wants to know: what are you reading?

Heh, I am reading Beginning Operations by James White. Beginning Operations is actually a collection of the first three novels in his Sector General series. I read one of these novels years ago and never forgot it. I don’t know why they aren’t more widely known because they sure are fun.

Do you remember the cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie?

Sector General is kind of like the cantina, except that it’s a HOSPITAL. And there are thousands of different alien species in this hospital, both patients and staff. Some of them breathe water or chlorine; others don’t breathe at all. Some of them require 4 Gs of gravity; others must float. Some of them must be kept at near-absolute zero temperatures; others are radioactive and hot. Some weigh several tons; others are microscopic. And the stories are basically about all the different accommodations that must be made for all these different species. Yes there is plot, but really it is all about the setting. And my favorite thing about it is that whenever a new species is mentioned, the author invariably includes a bit of info about the alien’s home planet conditions to explain why they have those particular characteristics; it is never random. I have a long-standing interest in biology, and particularly evolutionary biology, and this feeds right into it.

These stories probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though. They are quite typical of pre-1970s hardcore sci-fi. The doctors are all male and the nurses are all female — at least, for the species that actually have gender. The “futuristic” technology is dated (they use “intercom mikes,” for example, and educational “tapes”). But the prose is rock-solid and unobtrusive; the aliens are brilliant; and the scrapes they find themselves in are hilarious. Classic science fiction just doesn’t get any better than this.

What are you reading today?

Library Loot: a small haul

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

I still have two and a half books left over from last week’s haul so I didn’t do any browsing this time. Just picked up the two books I already had on hold:

Oh *giggle* I am excited for this one. I had completely forgotten that I ordered it. It was an interlibrary loan, which meant that the email notice didn’t list the title, just that the ILL had come in. When the librarian handed it to me I took one look, burst out laughing, and had to tell her all about it. :-) This series is classic sci-fi at its finest and most fun. I read one of these many years ago and always remembered it. Here’s the blurb: “Sector General: A massive deep-space hospital station on the Galactic Rim, where human and alien medicine meet. Its 384 levels and thousands of staff members are supposedly able to meet the needs of any conceivable alien patient–though that capacity is always being strained as more (and stranger) alien races turn up to join the galactic community. Sentient viruses, interspecies romances, undreamed-of institutional catering problems–it all lands on Sector General’s doorstep. And the only thing weirder than a hitherto unknown alien species is having a member of that species turn up in your Emergency Room.” Hoo boy!!!

I learned about this book from Alex at The Sleepless Reader. Southern fiction, which should be a nice change after The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, which is extremely… northern. Here’s the blurb: “Marvelously funny, bittersweet, and beautifully evocative, the original publication of A Short History of a Small Place announced the arrival of one of our great Southern voices. Although T. R. Pearson’s Neely, North Carolina, doesn’t appear on any map of the state, it has already earned a secure place on the literary landscape of the South. In this introduction to Neely, the young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a local spinster and former town belle who, after years of total seclusion, returns flamboyantly to public view-with her pet monkey, Mr. Britches. Here is a teeming human comedy inhabited by some of the most eccentric and endearing characters ever encountered in literature.”

Teeming human comedy… eccentric and endearing characters… I’ll take it!

Is that a challenge???

I’ve been checking out all these reading challenges. I like the idea of theme reads & reading projects, but as I have mentioned previously, I also really really love to browse and choose books at random. Also I am not super keen on being told what to read, even if it is I myself who is doing the telling, ya know?

On the other hand, lately I have not been doing a very good job of setting aside time for myself to read. Between work, family, and other obligations my “free” time is quite limited, and it’s all too easy to let the hours slip away while engaged in the vitally important work of stalking people on facebook. Reading in bed for 5 minutes before falling asleep is just not enough. Perhaps if I take up the gauntlet I’ll be able to stay more focused on the really important things in life, i.e. books. Plus this seems like a great way to meet other bloggers.

So, I’m going to try it out. I’ve decided on two: Back to the Classics and Mount TBR. This will amount to at most two books per month of “required” reading — enough to keep me focused but not enough to preclude spontaneous trips to the library.

Mount TBR

This challenge, issued by Bev at My Reader’s Block, specifies: “Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2012. No ARCs (none), no library books. No rereads. . . . The intention is to reduce the stack of books that you have bought for yourself or received as presents. . . . Books may be used to count for other challenges as well.”

I actually don’t have a towering TBR stack. I get the vast majority of my books from the public library. Still, there are a few. Mostly gifts — some off my wishlist, others chosen by people who know me well. And there are a few that I have bought for myself, usually on a whim. Oh yes, and there are some lingering volumes from about twenty years ago when I belonged to one of those book-of-the-month clubs.

I think for now I’ll declare myself at the lowest level, Pike’s Peak. That’s twelve books over the course of 2012. I can do that! I’m not going to declare them in advance; I’ll just list them as I read them.

Back to the Classics

This challenge comes from Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much. It’s a good one for me because many of the books in my TBR pile also happen to be classics. The goal is to read one book from each of the following categories during 2012. The first thing I thought when I saw this was, well how exactly do you define classic? Not to worry. Sarah defines a classic as “any book that has left its mark on the world. I want to say ‘literary world,’ but that is not always exactly the case, is it? It is a book that is remembered, or can conjure an image in anyone’s mind whether they have read it or not. In most cases, these books are old. But I also believe that some more recent works could be considered classics.”

Fair enough! So, here are my picks:

Any 19th century classic — Anthony Trollope: The American Senator

Any 20th century classic — Saul Bellow: Herzog

Reread a classic of your choice — Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

A classic play — Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Classic mystery/horror/crime fiction — Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

Classic romance — D.H. Lawrence: The Fox

A classic in translation — Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma

Classic award winner — Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses

A classic set in a country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime — Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Beverly Jensen: The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

Holy cow, this book was absolutely magnificent! Probably the best book I read this year. I will be giving it to everybody this holiday season. I had an incredibly busy week with very little time for reading, but I could not put this down.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay tells the story of Idella and Avis Hillock, born in New Brunswick in the first decade of the twentieth century. They spend their childhood living with their father, eking out a living between their rocky farm and the herring they can catch. They grow up, move down south to Maine, get married, have kids, and live their lives. Like most people, they experience tragedy, comedy, love, despair, heartbreak, and joy.

The story I just described probably sounds like a million other books. But what makes this one different is the incredible writing. Each chapter works as a stand-alone short story. And every one is a prose poem. For example, there is one where Idella has dinner with the parents of a boy she has been dating. The mother is a very difficult person and the dinner goes badly (to say the least). At the end of the meal the boy blows his temper and stomps out the back door. The story ends with this paragraph:

And there was Eddie, over by the strawberry patch, scooched down on his haunches. He, too, was looking out at the field—a soft gray figure silhouetted in the dimming light, fuzzy around the edges as though sitting in a private fog. Mist rose up from the long field grasses and sat like puffs of smoke in the lower dips and hollows. Idella slipped gratefully out of her new shoes—she wasn’t used to wearing that much heel—and stepped down onto the cool, dark grass. She walked toward Eddie, choosing to let go the screen door so it screeched and banged closed behind her. Not for the last time, she thought, as she padded toward him, smiling. Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang.

I think that is my favorite passage in the whole book. “Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang” is such a sweet way to show that she’s planning to stick with the guy, but in the context of this truly miserable dinner it’s more than just sweet. It shows you something about her character: she is stubborn and scrappy and she doesn’t mind banging a door. (Also interesting to think that a door slamming shut can indicate the beginning of something, not just a closing or ending.)

So, anyway. Each chapter is a beautiful story in itself, and some were actually published individually. One I believe was nominated for a Pushcart. And many years lapse between the events in each. At the same time, the story-chapters fit together beautifully and make a perfectly cohesive, seamless novel.

At least, I think it’s a novel. I noticed something very curious on the cover. The design includes a small yellow badge that says FICTION. Very odd. Usually if there is a question the cover will say “A novel” or something. But… fiction? Hmmm. This book really feels like a memoir. It reminded me a lot of Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (awesome book!) which is subtitled “A True-Life Novel.” It even reminded me (a little bit) of the Laura Ingalls books, say, if they had been written for adults and without the sad parts of her life glossed over. Not only that but Idella’s married name is Jensen and she has four daughters, three of whom apparently have the same names as Beverly Jensen’s sisters, the fourth of whom I believe is never mentioned by name. Is this really a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between?

Whatever it is, go read it!

Cathedral Lit

A cathedral I'd love to visit: Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The Guardian lists ten of the best cathedrals in literature and I have read none of them. I love churches and cathedrals and I love Church Lit (as distinct from Christian Lit), especially if it involves different factions of Anglicans or Protestants. All the better if beadles, vergers, rectors, vicars, etc. are involved. However, I’m hard-pressed to think of books I have read that specifically involve cathedrals. Let’s see. There is Cathedral by David Macauley — not a novel but a fascinating book to pore over on a rainy afternoon. The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L’Engle, if I recall correctly, is set in a cathedral. And perhaps The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers would count? I think that is more of a church than a cathedral, but of course it does have a belfry. Which makes me wonder: at what point does a church become a cathedral?

I’ve been looking over various reading challenges to try next year. I have kind of mixed feelings about declaring in advance what I am going to read because it rules out browsing. On the other hand, something like the Read Your Own Books challenge would help take care of some of that nagging guilt, ya know? I say this because of course it did occur to me to give myself a Cathedral Lit challenge and just drill right down the list. Eh, maybe not. I’m bookmarking it though.

What Cathedral Lit have you read?