Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Omens are medieval.  But – so are masks and dominoes, and a merrie singing cuckoo and a song called Greensleeves that will probably haunt me all my life.  To me that whole fading summer has rather the flavor of medieval music.  It had the shifting key changes, the gay, skipping rhythm and minor melody, and that unresolved, inconclusive end.

I never feel that any review I could write of Greensleeves will ever be adequate.  But I lent it to my friend Teacher to read during the hurricane, and she loved it a lot, and it made me jealous that I didn’t have it with me, so I read my mum’s copy, and damn, is it ever a good book.  It’s my favorite book, my desert-island book.

Greensleeves is about a girl called Shannon Lightley who has spent her whole life in transit, shuttling back and forth between separate parents, schools, and continents.  She’s eighteen years old, and when she pictures her entire life ahead of her, she is filled with dread and misery.  So her uncle Frosty offers her a job, to live in a little apartment and keep an eye on the people in the area.  He’s a lawyer, and he’s got a really weird will from one Mrs. Elizabeth Dunningham, who left people weird-shit bequests like scholarships to study subjects of no practical use and money to take skydiving lessons.  So Shannon’s job, basically, is to meet the people and check out whether there’s grounds for contesting the will.

It’s brilliant because Shannon is so tired of being herself that she decides to become someone different.  She changes her hair and her clothes and her accent and is a completely different person altogether.  And she meets all the people in the will – the taxi driver with the dependent family; the professor of Greek who yearns to go to Greece but keeps putting it off to finish writing his textbook; the overweight girl who wants to be a sexy flight attendant; the delightful Sherry who draws wavery cartoons and wants to know everything about everything.  And so forth.

This book is terribly successful at what it does – both in bringing to life all the characters, as well as Mrs. Dunningham, but as well in reflecting on the nature of cages and the things we let stop us from doing what we want.  Greensleeves resonates with me in a way that few books do, I suppose because Shannon’s so confused by life, and really – life is damn confusing.

Eloise Jarvis McGraw is so mysterious.  She has written what is probably my favorite book of all time ever – I wish she were still alive so I could tell her so, or that I had read Greensleeves earlier than 2000 instead of waiting until I was in high school, though it was a singular joy to suddenly discover it – but most of her other books, I can totally take or leave.  Heavy on the leave.  I remember quite liking The Moorchild, but I’ve never been able to get through Pharaoh, and many of her books for kids I just can’t be bothered with.  They’re not bad, they’re just not that interesting.  I loved Mara, Daughter of the Nile when I was twelve or so, but I think now I’m rereading it for nostalgic reasons rather than because it’s such a good book.  But then she has written Greensleeves, which completely speaks to me and contains possibly my favorite fictional couple since Jane Eyre & Edward Rochester.

If you read it, tell me what you thought.  You will of course love it.  Nobody could not love it.  I wish J.K. Rowling would read it and then shortly before the release of whatever her next book is, I wish that she would say, “You know what’s a good book?  Greensleeves.  Wish that were in print,” and then two days later it would be BAM back in print and probably optioned for a movie, as was the case with I Capture the Castle (for which, may I say, very very many thanks, J.K. Rowling).  I would rather have Greensleeves back in print than The Ghost of Opalina, and that’s saying something.

(In selfish terms I’d rather have The Ghost of Opalina, because I don’t own my own copy of The Ghost of Opalina and I do have a copy of Greensleeves – though I always want to buy more copies of it, just in case.  Backup copies.  You never know what’s going to happen.  What if I got in a huge fight with one of my friends and they decided to hit me where it hurts and shred Greensleeves?  YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN.)

Anyway.  Read it.  I swear.  I wouldn’t lie to you.

The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott

There has never been a more picked-up-at-random than this book.  Basically I was at Bongs & Noodles before the storm, trying to pick out a good hurricane book.  And I kind of wanted to get Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I had already read it.  And I kind of wanted to get The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, because of how haunting I remember Never Let Me Go was, but I felt doubtful about it.  So I sat on a chair gazing at my options, and then I realized that what I really wanted was to read The Far Pavilions again for the first time.  Darling Far Pavilions!  Or I would have settled for Shadow of the Moon.  I greatly wished for some sort of machine that would have allowed me to revert to my pre-reading-Far-Pavilions self.  (Or my pre-Diana-Wynne-Jones self.  Then I could have looked at my bookshelves and had all these brilliant new books to read.)

Anyway, that was impossible, so instead of that I went and put “the raj fiction” into the Bongs & Noodles computer search thing, and it pulled up The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and I blew thirty-five dollars on the first two of the four.  Essentially because, you know, the Raj is interesting, and because I just wanted something long to get me through the hurricane, and because I figured if I hated it I could always return it before the two weeks was up.

(I hate the new B&N return policy.)

I actually really, really, really liked it.  It’s a story about stuff that happens towards the end of the Raj.  Basically, a British girl has an Indian lover, and she gets raped by a bunch of not-her-lover Indians.  And that bit of plot is dealt with pretty thoroughly, but what I liked about the book, actually, was the way Paul Scott writes.  He spends the bulk of the book looping around the primary events, having all these different narrators tell different bits of the story, and they’re all telling completely different bits.  Compared to all the background you get, the bones of the story – how Daphne & Hari fall in love, and what happens That Night – only takes up a few pages.  And Mr. Scott didn’t do the looping and swirling in a boring way.  It was all very interesting, with many, many people saying what they thought about The Incident, and also what they thought about the Raj anyway, generally.  Very, very cool.

I wish I knew more about the Raj, because I had a bit of a hard time with some of the politics, not knowing the facts of what was happening at this time.  It was interesting that Mr. Scott wrote almost entirely from the point of view of the British characters – I guess you could see it as him being racist and only giving voices to the Brits, but as a white girl who writes, I wouldn’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking for people whose experiences I could never, ever have had, so maybe that’s how he felt too.

Salman Rushdie was angry at this book because Daphne Manners gets raped, and she’s white, and he thought it wasn’t a good metaphor for the violence Britain was doing to India.  Which I can see.  And I realize that Mr. Scott was saying many other things besides just “A white girl got raped by brown people” when he wrote this story.  But still, there was a fair bit of classism to the whole affair, I thought, messily entangled with the kind of unrecognized racism that’s addressed throughout the book, and it was not very nice to read.

In addition, I found it unsettling because she – this is a spoiler though you’ll probably have figured it out by the time she explains just what happened – gets attacked and raped by a bunch of Indian hooligans when they spot her having sex with her (Indian) lover Hari.  And that was scary and I don’t like rape scenes.

All of which is to say, I enjoyed the bulk of this book enough to think it worth my while to read the second one.  I am interested in what Paul Scott has to say.  It is very difficult to deal fairly with racism and oppression when you are liberal-minded but still, inevitably, one of the oppressors.  As this is something that troubles me (a lot), I enjoy to read books that deal with it.

The Laughter of Dead Kings, Elizabeth Peters

I would say – not her best work.  People are never as interesting once they’re all kissy-face.  Vicky and John have much I&D, as usual, and it was charming how Elizabeth Peters put herself in the book.  I want to be Elizabeth Peters’s friend because she has read all the same trashy novels that I have read (like The Sheik! and she knows the bravest-by-far-in-the-ranks-of-the-Shah-damn-the-girl-she’d-been-laughing-at-him-all-the-time song!).  And Schmidt is the greatest swordsman in Europe.  And that’s about all I have to say about that.

Rules for Saying Goodbye, Katherine Taylor

At last, a review for a book I finished last month.  I didn’t review it before because I had so many anger feelings at the hurricane.  However, we finally have power back.  A tree fell right on my aunts’ house and took it out completely, while they were inside, but they’re okay – probable PTSD aside – and their four dogs are okay.  Our fall holiday got cancelled and I lost thirty pages of a story I was writing under mysterious yet-to-be-explained circumstances.  Gustav was vile, and going to the grocery stores is like being in the Great Depression.  No more hurricanes.

Anyway.  Rules for Saying Goodbye was recommended by http://www.caribousmom.com/ but I didn’t care for it so much.  It is all about a fictional Katherine Taylor, which bothered me more than I had expected it to.  I’m a very family-oriented person, so I kept worrying about her mother and father and her cousins and aunts and uncles because of how awful they were in the story, and I was thinking, Is it okay with them that she’s writing these awful things about them? The only nice person was her brother Ethan.  And I know it’s fictionalized, but I couldn’t get my brain to stop thinking about how fictionalized it was, and what bits were true, and what bits weren’t.  The fictional Katherine Taylor talks dysfunction.  Much dysfunction.  Dysfunction in many incarnations.

I thought it was sad.  I wanted it to be funny, but it was just sad.  Maybe it’s like The Royal Tenenbaums, incredibly funny if you think that unhappy dysfunctional people are funny, but otherwise kind of sordid and depressing.  (I didn’t find The Royal Tenenbaums one bit funny.)  I read it quite quickly, and I guess I enjoyed it, but it was so sad that I think it balances back out to neutral.

Positive things: it was well-written.  Ms. Taylor is much with packing a lot of emotional meaning into brief phrases and incidents, which I deeply admire and which is something many writers are unable to pull off.  The eponymous chapter is very good – though a little jarring in how different it is to the rest of the book, and it might have been better off as an instructional poem, which evidently was her original plan for it – and she is a veritable goddess of the vignette.   I bet her short stories are very good.

On the downside, there wasn’t much of a thematic thread tying everything together.  I can’t remember who said the thing about life not being one damn thing after another, but the same damn thing over and over; however it definitely applies to this book.  She keeps encountering the same problems and dealing with them in the same way, and nothing ever changes.  No setting of boundaries (I am all about boundary-setting).  No developing into maturity on the part of any character.  It’s sparkling dialogue and witty descriptions of the same damn thing over and over.  While some of the characters, particularly Page, Ethan and the mother, are extremely vivid, a lot of them, including major ones, don’t ever really snap into focus – the father, Richard, Clarissa.  And as well, I have to say, it came off a little insincere to me.

I think this book would have been better off as a series of short stories.  It’s clever but it’s not very together, and it doesn’t manage (or try, actually, so I can’t criticize it for that) to pull off that whole Oscar Wilde I-am-so-clever-and-wittily-charming-I-don’t-even-need-a-sensible-plot thing (very few people can, though – Oscar Wilde and PG Wodehouse are the only two people that come to mind, and Earnest was a play and may not count).  So I was dissatisfied with the vignettiness of Rules, in the end.

Busy freaking out

I have been reading books but not posting reviews of them.  This is mainly due to three factors: school having started, me having a ‘sode, and the damn damn damn hurricane.

I’m going to go ahead and blame it mostly on the hurricane, though that really isn’t fair.  But who cares?  HURRICANES ARE VILE.  Today a really loud whooshing noise woke me up which may have been a great big enormous jet plane going over my head, and I suspect that this is ALL THE FAULT OF THE HURRICANE.  I say no to hurricanes.  No more hurricanes.  Not one bit of a nasty unpleasant hurricane.  Definitely we will have to wait on having more hurricanes until someone has developed a workable group therapy for PTSD that is focused on things like hurricanes (rather than things like car accidents).  When such a therapy has been developed, then we can talk about it.  It will be another few years.  BACK OFF, GUSTAV.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary Pearson

Recommended by: Melissa

I know that when writing a story is going well, everything seems connected, but it felt a little weird reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox right after spending an hour hunting for titles for my own story.  I was thinking of themes and words and trying to free-associate and when that failed, I went and read The Adoration of Jenna Fox with all the words still whizzing around in my brain.  The three primary ones – family, protection, secrets – as well as agency, actually – were remarkably relevant.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is about a girl who has just woken up after a year of being in a coma, and she’s trying to relearn all her old skills and words and memories.  There are many strange circumstances all over the place.  Like the fact that her family brought her from Boston to recuperate, but they only moved here two weeks ago, like they somehow knew that she would be waking up from the coma exactly now.  And the fact that food has no taste, and how her grandmother is weirdly hostile towards her.

It was a good book.  The obvious revelation – I won’t say though you’ll figure it out anyway – gets explained halfway through the book, which I liked because it gives Jenna all this time to contemplate her humanity and the decisions she gets to make, and that was an interesting process.  I thought some of the characters weren’t fully explored – as important as Alyss ended up being, she was sort of a one-note character, and Dane never went anywhere much either.  What worked beautifully was the development of the relationship between Jenna and her grandmother, and the relationship of the pre-coma Jenna with her parents.  There was a most genuine and remarkable moment in the book when Jenna tells her parents – well, I won’t say.  It’s a good moment.  I am a ruiner of major plot points but not emotional moments.

My other complaint – I’m such a complainer! – was the epilogue.  It felt tacked-on, tying everything up – all these messy issues – in a nice little package.  The ending of the book came so abruptly, and then the epilogue happened, and then it was over.  Because I thought that the Alyss plot thread worked less well than the rest, I wasn’t thrilled about where that went.  The logical climax of the book was Jenna’s declaration of her own agency, but then it went round and had another high-tension moment and then BAM that was the end.  I don’t know.  I didn’t like it.

This was an excellent book nevertheless.  It explored themes.  I liked it so much I trotted into my sister’s room and gave it to her to read.  If my mother had been awake I’d have recommended it to her as well.  I love telling people what to read.  Thanks, Mary Pearson, for giving me this opportunity.

An Unkindness of Ravens, Ruth Rendell

I confess.  I got this one because it has the same title as the book Lucas writes on One Tree Hill.  And you know what I realized when I was composing this review in my head while washing dishes?  I realized that Lucas’s book title?  Ravens is meant to refer to his basketball team, the Tree Hill Ravens.  Which kind of makes me want to gouge out my eyes.  Like, bad enough he’s written a pretentious book full of pretentious sentences and given it a pretentious title, and bad enough they’re pretending that this idiotic autobiographical book about Lucas and all his closest friends is such a masterpiece.  But see, I actually felt better about the title when I thought it was an abstract title that was with the symbols and everything – pretentious, yes, because it had nothing to do with anything, but I could deal with it.  Now I have realized that it is meant to be clever, I indeed wish centuries of stupid hair on Chad Michael Murray.  (Pointless wish that I know will be granted.)  Plus I feel resentful that I didn’t notice before, because my sister and I watched One Tree Hill all this past season, and I feel like we really missed out on some excellent mockery opportunities with that title.

Well, regardless.  Ruth Rendell’s book is completely unrelated to that.  It’s a totally acceptable title for this book.  Inspector Wexford gets asked by his neighbor to investigate what has happened to her husband Rodney Williams.  At first he thinks Rodney’s up and left her, but then there are all these mysterious circumstances that induce him to change his mind, like a bag of Rodney’s stuff turning up all abandoned, and them finding his body all drugged and stabbed.  And other people are getting stabbed by crazy feminists.  With ravens.

(Plot summary is one of my best skills.)

This book was more engaging than Vanity Dies Hard, less than Anna’s Book.  The plot went along nicely, but some things were a little weirdly resolved, and there weren’t any clever little linguistic tricks going around either.  (Like, oo, when Tom Marvolo Riddle rearranged to spell I am Lord Voldemort – that was my favorite bit of Chamber of Secrets which otherwise I don’t like a bit and I haven’t even bothered to replace my copy now that the spine’s all broken.) I wasn’t as interested in the characters, and I was displeased and surprised that Wexford – all perceptive with the incest thing – didn’t figure out a hundred pages earlier that when the girl said “those two women” she wasn’t talking about the mothers.  Because I knew straight away that she meant the daughters.  And I know that may be not a fair criticism since I’m of a different generation, but still it was frustrating.

I will say this for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I was thinking about the crazy feminists, trying to decide what I thought about her portrayal of them, and it got me thinking about many things regarding women and oppression, and I had a Total Epiphany about the story I’m writing.  It was one of those times when you’re writing a story and you realize something that’s happened in the story without your noticing, and all the indications for it are already there.  Because I had this epiphany, and I went back and reexamined my story, and I was thinking, Oh stupid Jenny, this element is already there, and it seems impossible that you didn’t notice this plot thread that was happening right under your nose.  I seriously only had to add about four paragraphs to the whole story to make the change.  So hurrah for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I am in its debt.

Vanity Dies Hard, Ruth Rendell

I began Vanity Dies Hard with the working hypothesis that Ruth Rendell was infallibly brilliant, and that even if her books were not as emotionally satisfying as Anna’s Book, they would always have satisfying and elegant plots like Anna’s Book did.  I was most disappointed.  Vanity Dies Hard had an ending that was the biggest let-down since the ending of The Machinist.  (Did you see The Machinist?  I already didn’t like Christian Bale, but my God, even for a movie containing Christian Bale, The Machinist was awful.)

Anyway, I had to create a new hypothesis based on my new data.  My new hypothesis was that Barbara Vine was good but Ruth Rendell was awful rubbish and not worth reading.  I am much with the scientific method, so I swiftly fetched the more appealing of the other two books of hers that I had.  Because I am trying to read her books least good to most good, which I’m hoping in this case means earliest to latest, but the library only had one of the early books in large-print, so I checked it out, but I hate large-print.  Thus I read the one that I grabbed randomly because of the title.  And I liked it rather better.

Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer

Spoilers. Many. Nothing but spoilers.

Breaking Dawn is an extravagant symphony of screwed-up sexuality and dysfunction. (Enjoyable because of the funny, loathsome because of all the people who think it’s romantic.) I had to stop about every twenty pages and update my sister, who, lucky duck, was the only one home, and we would have a long moan about how insane this book was, and how dismayed we were that people were all, Oo, she’s the next Harry Potter and – still less forgivable – Oo, she’s the next Buffy. Next Buffy. HA. When people are dysfunctional on Buffy, they know they’re dysfunctional. Even Spike – seriously, even Spike – had the grace to be ashamed of himself when Buffy caught him with the Buffy robot. Whereas Edward’s totally fine offering sick pregnant Bella to Jacob for the purposes of getting her preggers with Jacob’s baby instead, so that she won’t view Killer Vamp Baby as Her Only Chance Baby and will agree to abort it like Edward wants her to. Jacob, who has evidently not read the story of Hagar and Ishmael, is sort of up for it even though he knows it will destroy him emotionally. Again with the healthy relationships: because true love is all about ignoring everything you need and dissolving all your boundaries to make the other person happy. Sure, Bella doesn’t agree to this plan, but she also doesn’t say anything to Edward about how incredibly insulting this offer was to her, him, Jacob, and the baby that’s busy breaking her ribs. On account of how nobody in this book sets any boundaries, ever. Bella can’t even tell Edward that she doesn’t want the baby aborted; they don’t even have the conversation until Rosalie’s there to advocate for her.

Ahem.

I didn’t mean to get into that quite so thoroughly. I was going to start by making fun of how Edward won’t have sex with Bella after the first time because she’s all covered in bruises (teehee) and how she’s just so irresistible that she seduces him with her beautifulness and they break things. From there I was going to segue into how completely irritated I am by Stephenie Meyer’s female characters, who are all impossibly irritating, and how they would offend me if it weren’t for the fact that her male characters are just as bad. I was also going to mock vampire & werewolf science – cause, really? We’re going there with it? Talking about chromosomes? Vampires and werewolves just need chromosomes to tip them into believability?

But the best part of this book, for me, is the bit where Jacob imprints on the baby. Her name’s Renesmee, by the way. It’s far too easy to mock that name, so I’m not going to do it. You can mock it yourself. I can’t even be bothered. I’m too distracted by the fact that Jacob imprints on the infant daughter of the girl he’s in love with. Just in case you haven’t been reading these books, that means that he’s in total love with her forever and will mate with her someday (“her” being the DAY-OLD INFANT). There’s this really creepy scene where Bella wants to see the baby, and Jacob’s all reluctant to let her, and they have to growl at him to make him let Bella see her own baby. I don’t know – I get that it’s all in the context, and Bella’s a newborn vampire and might eat the baby, but I found that scene really disturbing. Jasper and Emmett and Jacob are all lined up in a row to stop Bella from seeing the baby.

But whatever, whatever, whatever, that all pales into insignificance next to the fact that Renesmee (really?) is going to grow up being groomed to marry Jacob and produce his little werewolf spawn. And all through her life as she’s growing up, everyone will be all, Here’s your future husband, little Renesmee (really?) From her infancy. Ick. She’s like those FLDS girls married to guys with like six wives, who won’t meet your eyes and mumble things while they look down, and ever since they were teensy little tots they’ve been raised to marry these guys and produce many, many children.

That’s not even mentioning how alarming it is that Jacob transfers his affections Woody-Allen-like to the daughter of the girl he used to be in love with. This whole imprinting-on-babies thing is so very deeply disturbing and cannot be made okay no matter how nice Jacob and Quil are to baby Renesmee (I feel like the MST3K gang felt about Grignr) and baby Claire. And it’s just made creepier because Jacob used to spend all his time picturing Bella naked but now doesn’t care about her at all because her day-old daughter has replaced Bella in his heart. When I try to explain my unhappiness at this development, I only make little babbling noises of disgust and despair and dismay, so I’ll leave this topic.

And then there’s all this build-up to the Hugest Battle Ever with the Volturi, and the last third of the book is all building up to this mighty battle but then! somehow! fortunately! it gets cancelled because they’re all like, Let’s hug it out, bitches. And also because Bella is Mighty Shield Girl (yes, she finally gets to do something – exciting, eh?) And everyone lives happily ever after, with lots of S.A. all around and many swoony kisses.

Go Fug Yourself, a website I completely adore, had a post about the Twilight movie and how entirely unappealing Cedric Diggory looks as Edward, while Bella looks all heavy-lidded and has an apple. And they (the Fug Girls, not Edward and Bella) said they missed Buffy because Buffy would have made a snide remark about Edward’s chest pubes and then staked his ass instead of fondling produce. I always think of that when I am reading Stephenie Meyer. How happy I would be if Buffy could indeed show up and stake Edward. Buffy could totally take the Cullens. It would be beautiful and she and the Scoobies could call everybody on how ridiculously badly they handle everything all the time and then when they had finished bawling them out for being imbeciles they could stake them and it would be amazing

can’t continue review

lost in joyous reverie

Why She Left Us, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

At the library the other day, I did two things that I never do.  First, I walked in with a self-imposed limit to get no more than ten books.  Then when I was looking for the books I wanted, I grabbed random books off the shelves because they looked interesting.  This is so not me.  I am not that girl.  Indie Sister is that girl, but I am not that girl.  I get books I’ve heard of, or at least books I’ve seen around several times before and I can’t take the curiosity anymore.

Well, this isn’t like that.  I liked the title and I liked the cover and the blurb so I just grabbed it, and I read it while I was waiting for the Cox people to come set up cable at my brand-new! closet-and-counter-space-rich! townhouse! apartment!

Why She Left Us is all about a Japanese-American family and their secrets.  During the second World War they were all in internment camps (or whatever they’re being called these days), and it was damaging for everyone.  The story goes back and forth between past and present, and between the points of view of different family members at different times in their lives.  The grandmother is telling the story to her granddaughter Mariko, and Mariko is finding out secrets as an adult; and then you have the points of view of Mariko’s mother’s brother, Jack, and Mariko’s brother Eric, at different points in their lives.

In a way this works really well.  I have this ceaseless obsession with point of view.  It’s something I loved about Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead – how you have the human point of view and then when you discover how the pequeninos see the same events, everything shifts.  Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and especially The Moonstone charm me, the way they use different narrators to tell different bits of the story.  Barbara Kingsolver does it in Poisonwood Bible with amazing facility.  Juggling points of view was one of the first things I remember mimicking when I was a kid.  Why She Left Us does a cool thing – you get the points of view of the characters who react, but not the characters to whom people are reacting.  The two most active characters, who create most of what everyone else responds to, you never know what they’re thinking; you only see how they affect the people around them.  Wilkie Collins does it in The Moonstone, never using Rachel’s point of view, and it’s a technique I really like a lot.

On the other hand, I didn’t like it how one character narrated in first person while all the others are in third.  I found the use of the present tense in the third-person characters sections jarring.  It distracted me from enjoying the book as much.  And then the whole thing was really sad and made me feel ashamed of our country.  Especially Michelle Malkin, who still thinks internment camps were good.

I think I come out just about neutral on this one.  The book was sad and in some ways disturbing, and I don’t know if I’d necessarily recommend it.