le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Friday, August 28, 2009

I am the messenger

Tonight, in a headache-induced fit of lethargy, I read all of Markus Zusak's I AM THE MESSENGER. and I AM IN LOVE.

what a book! my god!

I haven't read the book thief, since I haven't been able to get my hands on a library copy, so this was my first exposure to Zusak.
He's a really excellent writer - the characters were great, the scenes were great, the plot (and plotting) were unbelievably great. The cast of secondary (and tertiary) characters in this novel are both inventive and totally, ordinarily real.

Because I'm an American, and because I have never been to Australia, nor have I read many Australian books, something about Australian books has always felt a little ... extra-ordinary, like they aren't set quite in this world. I don't know the locations, the slang, the pop culture in the way that I do for American and even British books. I'm sure this says something hideously provincial about me, but in a way I also like the mystique of mysterious Australia in my books. It gives them a very slightly dreamy edge.

And the particulars of I AM THE MESSENGER are dreamy enough to begin with. It's thoroughly realist at the same time, which delights me. I love books when the dreamy aspect of life is made evident through realism, or when the real world takes on the tones I wish it had.

I don't want to recap the plot, or give anything away, but my two favorite secondary characters are Milla and the Polynesia family.

But Ed - the narrator, protagonist, the one who is utterly uncertain if he will be the hero of his own life - is really the best character of them all, from start to finish. As I concluded the book, I thought of the Brothers Cheeryble, from Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, who are two of my absolute favorite characters in fiction.

What the Cheerybles share with Ed - or, rather, with Ed's story - is a sense of compassion, of kindness, of love, that is ridiculously rare both in fiction and in the real world. Zusak is a master because he manages to convey a fairly cliched message without it feeling cliched, or even feeling like he's conveying a message. This is not - not EVER - a preachy, or smarmy, or (shudder) sentimental book. It is more than occasionally brutal, often perplexing, lonely, sad, frustrating. But it never once preaches. It is not moralizing. We don't want to become like Ed - we already are like Ed. This is no Eric, or Little by Little. Ed is nobody's role model, nobody's hero, except in the ways that we are all always, already, heroes.

My keywords for life have lately become empathy and compassion, and this book suited those words beautifully, in a way that also satisfies my critical, judgmental, sarcastic streak that resists sentimentality, and boundless optimism.

I am not sure there are any good words to describe this book, and how I feel about it. It's an absolute must-read, and I can't think how I've missed it before now (it was published in 2002, for crying out loud!). I intend to get my hands on THE BOOK THIEF asap, but I also intend to purchase I AM THE MESSENGER as soon as book-buying comes into my financial grasp again. I do not buy books lightly; I do not choose just any, or every, book to add to my collection. My need to own this book is the highest recommendation i could give to it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

booking through thursday - quick edition

today's question:

What’s the lightest, most “fluff” kind of book you’ve read recently?

I've been hitting the popular YA lately, so I feel like lots of fluff has been happening. But of the ones I've COMPLETED, I'm going with Rachel Cohn's trio of books about Cyd Charisse - GINGERBREAD, SHRIMP, CUPCAKE.

I think SHRIMP was probably the fluffiest, though CUPCAKE also had its moments. Not bad books, just pretty fluffy. Bits and pieces of Serious Life Moments, but overall: fluffy, especially by my standards.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

booking through thursday

AH! Just the right question!

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

It's not technically a children's or YA book, but the protagonist is a child throughout the entire book (I think he's around 14 at the end).

The book?


Set in early-mid nineteenth century Oxford, this is an absolute dream of a book. I read it through in just about a day; it was like I was in a trance. I mean, a deeper trance than I usually am in when I'm reading.

It's a peculiar little book, almost more of a place-and-character study than a true plot-driven novel. But the moments when the text does ramble feel so entirely appropriate to the dreamy tone of the book in general that you hardly notice them. It's hard for me to even think of Garner, of an author - this is a book that has been dreamed and drifted into the world so beautifully it doesn't feel constructed at all. This is, of course, a major sign of brilliant craftsmanship.

Edgar is a compelling but always mysterious character; his parents are both sympathetic and pitiable, even, at times, loathsome. The others who inhabit the novel - very, very few actually inhabit Edgar's world - are an intriguing mix. Garner gets the tone of the early Victorian period just right, but the world of Oxford's dreaming spires is, in fact, dreamy, shadowy, full of invisible, or barely visible forces that border on the supernatural or magical. This is not a fantasy; there are no cabals of magicians, no faerie, no elves. It isn't even the magical realism of garcia marquez, though the book shares some of the hazy, beautiful qualities of 100 Years of Solitude.

The novel's conclusion is not an ending, in any sense. it is just the fading away of the dream-narrative. The nearest comparison I could make, especially with the novel's conclusion, is to Todd Haynes' amazing film Poison.

Totally captivating, this is the kind of book you want to simultaneously treasure and hoard and keep as a jewel-like secret, along with shouting from the rooftops of how great it is.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

new experiment: booking through thursday

I've decided to try participating in the Booking Through Thursday meme (a word I really do not like). This week's question:

What’s the worst book you’ve read recently?
(I figure it’s easier than asking your all-time worst, because, well, it’s recent!)

This is not an easy one to answer. I don't pick books that sound bad; I usually go for books that I've heard or read something positive about, or books where I know the author's other work and like it. That said, I guess I'd have to say the book I've read recently (in the last six months or) that was worst is Jay Asher's 13 REASONS WHY.

13 REASONS WHY has been pretty popular with younger readers; I guess vindictive, suicidal girls have their appeal. It's entirely possible that this *could* have been a good book; the premise isn't terrible, but Asher is not that skilled as a writer. Ultimately, the book left me cold and puzzled: Hannah's reasons for killing herself seemed awfully petty, and I never once felt, from the tone of her narrations, that she was in the kind of despair that leads to suicide. She sounds more petulant than anything else. Similarly, the position in which she puts the novel's main narrator, Clay, is appalling.
The novel ends with a weak attempt at producing a silver lining to Hannah's suicide, and this is maybe where the book is at its worst. Hannah's suicide – her 13 reasons – seem so utterly banal that it's hard to feel like any big impact has been made. There is NO silver lining to suicide, but the book wants to leave us on an up note, so Clay decides to be especially nice to a misfit depressed girl at school. The book closes on his decision; we never see if he carries through, or if he has any success.

This is not the most poorly written book I've ever read, but it's not particularly good, either. The prose is just so-so. Hannah's voice is not convincing; or perhaps, it's convincing as an unhappy, bratty teenager, but not one genuinely driven to the kinds of misery that lead to suicide. Clay is more convincing, but the narrative screws him over so badly it's hard to feel anything but misery for him. The misery is made worse by the book's belated effort at giving us something positive to latch on to (Clay's last-page decision to reach out to his classmate). Either leave us with the bleakness that attends suicide, OR give us something genuinely positive or hopeful to take away. The half-assed attempt at an up ending only highlights the shoddiness of the entire text.

Monday, August 03, 2009

reading YA nonstop

I have decided to start a notebook, keeping track of the books I read. This will include re-reads. I started the notebook around 29 July. It is now the morning of 3 August, and i just added the 11th title.

I may have a problem, a sort of addiction, to reading. But then again, other than a slight, very slight, dizziness, reading all the time causes me no problems, so I don't worry about it.

Most recently I read Rachel Cohn's Gingerbread, which proved to me that I still don't like YA novels about pretty teenage girls with money (even screwed up girls like Cyd Charisse, though the presence of the doll Gingerbread was a great touch); K.L. Going's King of the Screwups, which challenged me again - it was difficult to NOT feel sympathy for Liam, the narrator, and his angst over his nasty father and his useless mother; but he's 1) beautiful [model-gorgeous] 2) wealthy and 3) a large part of his conflict in the book is his attempt to become unpopular, which fails miserably.

I have a very hard time feeling sorry for beautiful, wealthy teenagers, even when they have shitty families. Cyd Charisse has a screwed-up family, but is not unloved; her step-dad (the only dad she's ever known) clearly loves her and connects with her; her mother is more difficult, but tries to do the right thing. Her bio-dad is a mess, but not in a bad way. Cyd Charisse has her pick of attractive boys/men, money to burn (literally - she stuffs a $50 down the garbage disposal) and a weirdly charming personality. From my standpoint as an ever-so-elderly 30-year-old, Cyd Charisse just seemed like a brat. I wonder if there are some YA books that simply don't work on non-YA readers. ......

Liam, in Going's novel, was a bit trickier. He's definitely less of a brat that Cyd Charisse; because we can see inside his head (he's narrator), we can see that the actions and remarks that seem callous and arrogant are actually just his thoughts coming out all wrong as a result of his anxiety over doing something wrong. But it made me grind my teeth that Liam's talent is for fashion and modeling - it's hard for me to not see that as frivolous. And the popularity that Liam is trying to slough off comes almost entirely from his appearance: he's drop-dead gorgeous, and he dresses extremely well. Girls, and guys, are going ga-ga to welcome him to the new school. It is very hard to feel sorry for someone who has instant entree to every social group he finds himself in.

Where Going really pleased me is with the cast of middle-aged glam rockers whom Liam ends up living with. His uncle - gay Aunt Pete - who lives in a trailer in a mobile-home park, and Pete's bandmates: flaming Eddie who runs a clothing store, Dino the cop and Orlando, the English teacher (in fact, Liam's english teacher) - all continue to practice and play in their glam band as they've done for decades. This is a great, queer batch of characters whose queerness matters but not as a stumbling block.

And this morning I finished MT Anderson's Burger Wuss, which for some reason I've avoided until now. I love Anderson, but this is not his best work, though it has its moments. Anthony, poor old narrator Anthony, is a weird, nerdy kid (a contortionist!?) trying to get revenge on a slick jerk for "stealing" ANthony's girlfriend of three months, Diana. Anthony's obsessiveness over Diana, coupled with his total unawareness of his obsessiveness, and its creepiness, makes him a very unsettling character.
The book reminded me a lot of a novel I read as a kid, called something like Burger Heaven - I think (main character: a guy named Kenny who works at a burger place, ends up robbing it, it all goes south from there. it's late 70s or early 80s, I think).

The absolute best - BEST - part of the book is Anderson's inclusion of a gang of grammatically-correct graffiti kids. They're teenagers who go around correctly the grammar of other graffiti and signs around town. There's a great moment, when the group finds a graffiti that says GUY'S SUCK, and the grammar kids fall all over each other laughing "like it takes the genitive!" Literally: two of the kids end up rolling around on the ground laughing.

Somehow, a band of grammar graffiti-bandits appeals enormously to me.
Really, I think maybe Anderson should have scrapped the burger wuss angle (though it does have, in Shunt, a nice anarchist, anti-capitalist agitator), and instead written a novel about the life and times of the Correct Grammar Gang.

I now need to set aside my YA readings and ramblings, and get down to business of reading some children's/YA historical fiction - particularly some older historical fiction - so I can finalize my fall syllabus. Historical fiction has never been my specialty, so I'm struggling a little. The Newbery Award has often gone to historical fiction, but all of it raises my hackles in one way or another (The Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Slave Dancer, the older stuff like Rifles for Watie), and I refuse to include it. I'm already planning either caddie woodlawn or a little house book, to demonstrate the "ills" of some kinds of historical fiction. I don't need another demonstration of this.