Birds in Fall, Brad Kessler

She handed the open tube across the cello.What do I do with this? I asked.

You write your name.

You’re being dramatic.

Am I? she asked.

The name of the lipstick was Japanese Maple. Against her pale skin, the letters looked lurid and blotchy.

The Japanese maple on our roof was slightly more purple than the lipstick. Its leaves in fall the color “of bruises” Ana once said. She would have looked good wearing that pigment. I held the glistening tube in my hand, not knowing what to write or where. I wanted to write Ana’s name, or both our names, as though we were a piece of luggage that, lost, would find its way back to the loft. So I put our address down, taking care with each number, each letter: 150 First Avenue; and then I showed my arm to the cellist, and she said: Your name. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to write it down.

Recommended by: A Reader’s Journal

Basically I chose to read Birds in Fall because I’ve been rereading a bunch of old books lately, and I thought, You know, I have this massive long list of books to read that I’ve been at some pains to compile, and here I am doing nothing but reading stuff I’ve read before a million times. So I glanced at my List, picked a few things at random, and checked them out of the library; and then I read this one first because it has a pretty cover.

Birds in Fall is about a plane that crashes off the coast of Nova Scotia. The families of the people who died come to the wee island where it crashed, and they all stay in the little inn together while they are waiting for news. I thought it was going to be extremely depressing. If it hadn’t had postage stamp birds on the cover, I might never have read it and devoted my time entirely to the watching of Angel until my eyeballs fell out.  (He hit Buffy in the face.)

However, there were postage stamp birds on the cover, and for the first two-thirds I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was – and you’ll have to excuse the adjectives and be aware that I hate myself a little bit for using them – haunting and elegiac.  The whole thing of becoming a community on the basis of their mutual loss worked very well, and Mr. Kessler created the mood quite perfectly, the boredom and the grieving more or less put on hold until bodies could be found.  Excellent.

Then around chapter nineteen or twenty, everything went to hell.  Well, not to hell, but the book experienced a sudden drastic drop-off in interestingness.  Everyone went home and I got bored and kept wanting to skim, and I read the end like five times, but it didn’t help because the end wasn’t that interesting either.  Everyone went home.  I didn’t even care about Ana getting closure, and previously I’d been unable to put the book down, I was so involved in whether Ana (and everyone) got closure.  So humph.  I was all set to recommend this book to my mother and put a lot of energy into persuading her to read it, and then it got less interesting and saved me the trouble.

Still, it’s worth reading, and I can see reading it again.  For one thing, the drop-off in interesting was so drastic and sudden that I have some concerns that I, not it, might be the issue.  Perchance I just suddenly became not in the mood for this book, and in fact it didn’t change at all.  So I’ll probably read it again sometime, to see if that’s the problem.  I can see that being the problem; the more I think about it, the more likely it seems.

Emily’s Quest, L.M. Montgomery

A really sad story: One time when I was in England I developed this mad craving to read all the Emily of New Moon books, so I went to great trouble to obtain them.  As things ended up, I had the first two on loan, and the third one I bought at a charity shop, so I read the first two lickety-split and returned them, at which point my yearning to read Emily’s Quest surpassed all imagining.  At this point it was late May, I think.  I was into exams and all.  And I had the bright idea – being a hardcore delayed gratification girl – of delaying gratification with Emily’s Quest, taking the book with me on the airplane home and reading it then, at which point it would be incredibly satisfying because I would have been craving it all the while in the interim.  But by the time the flight home rolled around, my primary emotions were excitement about seeing my family and soul-deep joy at the existence of my hat (oh, my lovely Ascot hat), and I was sort of no longer in the mood to read Emily’s Quest.

Well, never mind.  Here we are a year on, and I really enjoyed it a lot this go-round.  Teddy’s still boring, bless him.  I don’t know why L.M. Montgomery can’t write any interesting romantic leads.  All Teddy has going for him is that he draws pretty pictures.  Lame.  Not that she should have married Dean, but she maybe should have married that author guy who came and proposed to her and hurled a goblet at her.

The other thing I noticed this time – I was saying this to my mum – is that it’s funny how the main plotline throughout the series is Emily’s writing, and that’s the thing that drives everything else really, but she publishes her novel well before the end of the book.  The book only ends when she gets together with Teddy (at last).  Her man.  And I was saying it like those girls in The Ten Commandments.  And it’s sooooorta antifeminist, and you’d be hearing me complain about it with much greater anger if not for the fact that I remembered this: If the book had ended after Emily published her book (I don’t approve of the title The Moral of the Rose, by the way), we would never have had all those reviews, and that’s one of my favorite bits in all three books.

And you know what?  DEAN PRIEST JUST SUCKS SHIT.  The end.

Sweethearts, Sara Zarr

Recommended by: God knows.  Some website.  I remember seeing it but I didn’t take note of where and now I can’t remember.  I’m cute but dumb.

I actually bought this book mainly out of terror and dismay, as it sounded a lot like a story I’m in the process of drafting, and when I read about it I freaked out immediately and started having depressing dreams in which Sara Zarr (who looked a lot like Scheherazade from the TV movie of Arabian Nights, damn her) came and fussed at me for writing a lamer version of the exact same story she had written.   This isn’t very admirable and demonstrates deep insecurities and also a hitherto unacknowledged desire to look like Mili Avital, but there it is, that’s what I dreamed.

To my relief, this book is really nothing like my story at all, so Mili Avital/Sara Zarr/my mean old embarrassing grouch of a subconscious can just leave me alone.  It’s about a girl called Jennifer (hmph) who was a misfit outcast girl in elementary school and she had a best friend called Cameron and they were outcasts together, and then Something Happened when they were nine and Cameron left very unexpectedly and Jennifer recreated herself.  And named herself Jenna.  And then when she is seventeen, Cameron comes back.

(Please, like that’s an improvement.  There are other, better nicknames for Jennifer than that.  Just saying.)

I enjoyed this book.  Ms. Zarr (who incidentally doesn’t look any more like Mili Avital than I do except that she is brunette like Mili Avital and I have fair hair) writes excellent dialogue and genuine relationships which is often tricky.  And although I was extremely sleepy and I knew I would be losing an hour today, damn Daylight Savings Time, I nevertheless stayed up late and finished it in one sitting.  With, in the interests of full disclosure, some getting up and down for water and the bathroom and to brush my teeth and to check Woot and PostSecret.  I wasn’t wild about the last chapter – it seemed unconnected with the rest of the book, how suddenly we were leaping through enormous dollops of time in the narrator’s life and all kinds of shit happened in the intervening years, and – it was a bit jolting, and I thought, really, it could have been handled more smoothly.

But overall a thoroughly good book.  If I knew any teenage girls I would give them my copy.

Oh, hey, I do know a teenage girl.  Maybe I’ll give her my copy.

Emily Climbs

One of my favorite lines in all of literature happens in Emily Climbs:

“Of course,” said Mrs. Ann Cyrilla, “I think a great many of Emily’s faults come from her intimacy with Ilse Burnley. She shouldn’t be allowed to run about with Ilse as she does. Why, they say Ilse is as much an infidel as her father….She swears like a trooper, I’m told. Mrs. Mark Burns was in [her father’s] office one day and heard Ilse in the parlor say distinctly ‘out, damned Spot!’ probably to the dog.”

Oh God. That’s as good as anything Valancy says in that dinner with her family in The Blue Castle. I never read Macbeth without thinking of Ilse Burnley.

You wouldn’t say that Emily Climbs was long on plot. She does things that shock people even though she is perfectly innocent and reasonable in the matter, and she tries to get things published, and her family is frustrating and supportive by turns, and she has a lovable cast of friends plus boring Teddy, and she likes pretty things. I can’t say what it is about this book that appeals to me so much. It’s just charming and friendly and amusing. It’s episodic but the episodes are interesting.

And, ugh, I don’t like it when Dean teases her about her writing. What a jerk! How mean he is! How could anyone do such a mean thing? That enormous prat! He may be more interesting than Teddy, but what a humongous selfish jerk telling her bad things about her stories when they are indeed very good! Whatever. I want to like Dean because he gives Emily new books to read, and I try to shut down those parts of my mind that are screaming “Humbert Humbert” and “that surely untrue but still creepy story about Alfred Douglas going to visit Oscar Wilde with Andre Gide and telling Gide that Oscar Wilde’s kid Cyril ‘will be for me’ (ew! ew! I know it’s apocryphal but ew, ew, ew, ew!)”; anyway I try to shut down those parts of my mind and focus on Tom Lynn and Polly or Jane and Mr. Rochester, who undoubtedly lived happily ever afterwards to the end of their days, but it’s impossible to be friends with Dean given his unconscionable behavior as regards Emily’s writing. And I shouldn’t even be getting all het up yet because he hasn’t done the really super duper unconscionable thing that he does in Emily’s Quest.

That bastard. I never forgave him for that.

I wish I had that old copy like I have of Emily of New Moon. The one with the cover where she is smelling a flower and it’s all greeny. That’s a better cover than the one I’ve got. On the one I’ve got Emily just looks really blah. But still, if you are ever near Emily Climbs, in any edition, read it. It’s friendly.

The most unbelievable luck

So there was a book fair today, right, and do you know what I bought for one dollar, one dollar?

A shiny clean hardback of Crocodile on the Sandbank. For a dollar. A hundred pennies.

Wow.

I also got hardbacks of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of King Midas, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, Thursday’s Child, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Twilight, and The Little Lame Prince. All of these things, plus some assorted paperbacks, for a grand total of $20.10. I am one happy camper.

Edit on Friday to add: Oh I am so happy.  Today I got Shadow of the Moon in hardback, an earlier edition evidently than the one my mother has, as it is differently organized (more focus on Alex, it seems) and shorter.  I also got a book of Audubon for my father, a book of Robert Browning, a sweet little Latin grammar from the late 1890s,  and a book entitled The Tremaynes and the Masterful Monk, which now that I investigate turns out to be the third in a series of books by an ex-Anglican Catholic convert.  I foresee great things for me and Masterful Monk.  If nothing else, its title never fails to make me giggle.  Masterful Monk.  Oh, God, life’s too good.

The Children of Green Knowe, L.M. Boston

Oh my God this book was boring.  It was so, so, so boring.  It started out boring and it carried on being boring and there was nothing but boring and I kept thinking that something, anything, would have to happen eventually, but nothing ever did. Ever.  Nothing ever happened.  There was some conflict set up; there were suggestions of some kind of mystery; and nothing ever happened.  I was reading this book during one of my classes today (a fairly dull class, as it goes), and the book was so ungodly boring that I actually chose to put the book away and pay attention to what was going on in my class.  Which was basically just people writing on the chalkboard and being corrected or praised.  So that will give you some idea of how amazingly outstandingly impossibly tedious this book was.  There are six sequels to it and I feel like I should read another one just to see if the situation improves any, but I can’t bring myself to do it.   Ugh.

Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery

When my life gets stressful, I don’t read new books.  Hence I am rereading a bunch of old things.  The Color Purple and now all of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books.

I have to confess that I don’t understand the undying allure of Anne of Green Gables.  I don’t dislike those books or anything, but I can totally live without them – and God, how boring is Gilbert?  Is it just me?  Isn’t Gilbert dull?  Don’t we all sort of want to chuck Gilbert off a cliff?  When I was a little girl I read Anne of Green Gables and stopped and I nearly went off LM Montgomery for life.  Happily my mother said I should try reading Emily of New Moon, and I did, and it was brilliant.

It’s still brilliant.  I totally love it.  I like all the bits where people tell Emily she’s a good writer.  I know it’s silly, but I always read those bits several times when I’m reading these books, and they always make me smile.  I actually only just made that connection: I knew there were bits I reread a lot, but I just realized this minute that they were all the bits with people telling Emily she’s a good writer.  In my mind they were just the Father Cassidy bit and the Mr. Carpenter bit, but of course, that’s what’s going on there.  Huh.

Well, anyway, Emily of New Moon is one of my favorite books ever.  I will soon post happy posts about the two sequels and how much joy they give me.

While I’m on the subject, though, I have to say this: There are a whole bunch of books by L.M. Montgomery that are way better than those Anne Shirley books.  The three books about Emily Starr are better, and Jane of Lantern Hill is substantially better, and The Blue Castle is ten thousand bazillion times better and contains a scene that is one of the best scenes of all time and always makes me laugh no matter how often I read it.  So if you have only read the Anne books, you are missing out like whoa.  And even if you don’t think the other books are better, they are definitely worth reading – the aforementioned ones are all good, and A Tangled Web is very delightful and I have it in hardback.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

You know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand why The Color Purple is so ridiculously awesome, and why when there are all these really subpar books running around, why people don’t just go ahead and read The Color Purple all the time. Why don’t people just read The Color Purple all the time, and forget about that Atonement crap?

The Color Purple. Wow.

When I was young, my mother had told me once that The Color Purple was one of her favorite books of all time, and I remember her telling me her favorite line (“White folks is a miracle of affliction”), and in early middle school I asked her where her copy was because I wanted to read it. And that’s the only time in my entire life I can remember my mother telling me not to read a book. She said wait a few years and I’d like it better. When I finally did read it (and oh my God, it blew me away), I assumed that she had been trying to steer me clear of it because of the fairly extensive sexual and violent content, but I asked her and she said no, she just thought I’d like it better if I waited a few years. She said that giving it to an eleven-year-old to read would be like giving To Kill a Mockingbird to a precocious kid of eight – the kid might be able to read all the words, but s/he’d be missing out on all the richness that’s there. She said you only get to read a book for the first time once, and there are some books that you just really deserve to have the best first-reading experience possible.

I totally agree with that.  And this is a damn good book.  It’s one of those books that everyone should read.  Everyone in the whole world.  In fact I’m just off to ship a few hundred copies off to world leaders.  Do ’em good.

P.S. Although they are both Important Black American Women writers, I am forced to read Toni Morrison much more often than I am forced to read Alice Walker.  In fact I have never had to read Alice Walker, except for one short story once, whereas I have had to deal with Toni Morrison kind of a lot.  And you know what, you know what?  I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.  Beloved makes me feel queasy.  The Color Purple is a much better book and everyone should just, just, just revise their damn syllabuses.

Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos

Suggested by: My darling Mum

This was good.  Ms. de los Santos writes most truthfully about relationships.  The little girl was very interesting and intense.

I’d write more but I’m too busy trying to get school things done so that I can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer later.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Recommended by: Between the Covers

Ah, time travel books.  You are so numerous, and yet you so often do not want me to love you.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  The Time Traveler’s Wife and me are buddies.  Time at the Top makes my life happy by its very existence.  It can be done.  Apparently with Time in the title.

(Just so I don’t feel like a big meanie when I complain about Doomsday Book, I’ll say that Diana Wynne Jones, whom I love more than my luggage, wrote a time travel book that I didn’t much care for either.  It’s one of my least favorites of hers, not quite down there with The Time of the Ghost, but still very not my favorite, maybe even less favorite than Hexwood which I also don’t like as much as her others.)

I don’t know.  I read this over a long period of time, much longer than is normal for me, and at no point did I feel the slightest interest in what was going to happen to anyone.  For this book to have worked, the characters would have had to be really vivid –

Er, P.S., this is a book about a girl from Oxford in the future, called Kivrin, who goes back in time to 1320 in order to study the Middle Ages and she gets there and lives with a family there and meanwhile back in future-Oxford a bunch of stuff goes wrong and everyone gets sick with a weird virus that came from they don’t know where.

– as I was saying, the characters would have had to be really vivid, because Kivrin doesn’t ultimately have much to do in the past.  In fact, no one does.  I’m so glad I didn’t live back in the day because I would have caught plague and furthermore it was obviously AMAZINGLY BORING, because nobody in the past did anything until they all caught the plague and died.  These things kept coming up, and I’d be all, Aha, a plot! and get set for that to be the important thing, like Kivrin crushing on the Manly Priest, or the lady’s husband’s vassal having a big crush on the lady, or the daughter’s engagement to the big old creepy guy.  These were not the important things.  They weren’t anything.  God, it was boring.  And then it would cut to chapters set in future-Oxford where everyone there was bitching about futurey things and asking each other where, oh where, could this mysterious deadly virus have come from?

(The past, as it goes.)

And I’m not saying it couldn’t have worked, this nothing happening thing, because there are books in which the characters are just so vivid and interesting that there doesn’t have to be a lot of action. You’re just content to lie back and watch these interesting characters go about their daily lives doing regular interactions and nothing out of the ordinary.  Doomsday Book does not achieve this effect, and blah, I just couldn’t be bothered with it.