Miss Spitfire, Sarah Miller

Recommended by: Book Nut

I love Annie Sullivan.  Every time I think about Annie Sullivan it blows my mind.  She was twenty when she went to go teach Helen Keller, and she’d had no proper parenting, and she was twenty, and she must have been just about the most brilliant and inventive person of all time.  Annie Sullivan.  WOW.  There was a woman who knew how to parent.

Anyway, I was excited to read this book about her.  I like young adult books, even though I have now become a real adult and can no longer feel smug, as I did when I was seven and eight and nine, about reading way above my grade level. So I checked out Miss Spitfire to read.

And it was, you know, fine.  Nothing wrong with it at all.  It’s just – we all know this story already.  I guess I was hoping for a fresh look at the story, and this really wasn’t it.  It went down just about the way you’d expect: Annie comes, there are big fights, she feels anxious, she makes Helen behave, there’s a breakthrough, things improve, the end.  Of course Ms. Miller has given us a good story, but the story of Helen and Annie is a good story, and it would be some trick to make it boring.  But she hasn’t brought anything new to it.  For me.

However, there was a picture of Helen’s house when she was a kid, and I was really surprised about it.  Look.  In my mind I always pictured something more airy and grand and plantation-like, but this could very easily be a house in the Garden District or something.  It’s cute!  It’s the kind of house everyone is tearing down now to build their McMansions.  Learn something new every day.

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.

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.

Heck Superhero, by Martine Leavitt

Martine Leavitt is still my new BFF, and great respect to her for raising seven kids and still managing to write books, but I didn’t like Heck Superhero as much as The Dollmage and Keturah.  I think that writing in the present time may just not be her thing, and it may actually be necessary for her to set her stories in strange, alternate versions of England from back in the day.

Heck Superhero is about a kid whose mother goes MIA, and as a result of some pretty spectacular magic thinking (he’s only a kid, so this is permissible), he thinks that he has to be a superhero in order to find her, by doing enough really fantastic and amazing Good Deeds.

It was good.  Just not as good.  I wish I had Martine Leavitt’s other books instead of this one.  It was a teeny bit of a letdown.

HUMPH (or, The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray)

HUMPH.  I AM DISPLEASED.

Spoilers to follow.

But first: This is the third book in a trilogy that basically, for me, has been the Gemma-and-Kartik (that’s his name) show, with some other stuff about magic or something going on as well.  To be brutally honest, I haven’t been terribly interested in the main story, so I’ve just been carrying on reading in the hopes that Gemma and Kartik would move to The Land Where People Don’t Care About Race and get married and have lots of little babies.

AND THEN KARTIK WENT AND DIED, DAMMIT.

I mean, I knew that was going to happen, because I read the end before I read the middle, but I was still extremely outraged when I got to it in real time.  And I’m still cross.

And you know what else?  You know what else I’m cross about?  I’ll tell you!  I’m cross about the unsubtle foreshadowing of Felicity’s tendencies by mentioning Oscar Wilde.  I mean COME ON.  I already figured it out anyway but then Ms. Bray went and put that in and it’s not that I don’t support Oscar Wilde whole-heartedly, because God knows I do, but seriously, once she said that it was glaringly obvious and thus she completely prevented me from feeling smug and clever when The Truth Was Revealed.  And, you know, I like feeling clever about plot points that I predict without reading them at the end of the book; because as a trend, I am not using my brain to predict things when I am reading, so I very very rarely guess things before they happen, including really obvious things like that the guy named Lupin who got sick all the time during the full moon and had to have Snape take over his class and teach about werewolves, was a werewolf.

Yeah, that was dumb.  But I did have an incredibly brilliant epiphany about this plot point in the fifth Harry Potter book, and damn, that was smart of me.

Anyway, I don’t like it that Libba Bray messed up my high opinion of myself.

AND ALSO KARTIK DIED.  I mean what was the point of all those saucy dreams she kept having about kissing him (with tongue, the scandalous wench!) if he was just going to die at the end?  THERE ARE RULES about these things (that exist in my brain) whereby the hero of the story, and I think we can agree that Kartik was the only candidate for that, is supposed to survive.  DEVIANCE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.

True Notebooks, Mark Salzman

Carlos was a minor character in the story [I was writing], a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness. Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured Duane must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answering, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a writing class there. If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

I didn’t respond immediately. I wanted him to think I was giving it serious thought. Then I asked, “Are you sure you can’t recommend any books?”

Recommended by: A Striped Armchair

The Man sucks.

Also this book was good. I drove around for a while trying to remember which library branch had it, and then I finally remembered and checked it out, and then I read it straight through. It’s a memoir of Mark Salzman’s time teaching a creative writing class at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t say that this is the best-written memoir I’ve ever read in my life, but it’s not badly written by any means, and Mr. Salzman writes with great sincerity. Which, actually, is probably more important than writing like a dream, when you’re dealing with something about which people have some really firmly ingrained preconceptions.

What Mr. Salzman is quite successful at (shades of John Berendt (who is a better writer, I think)) is reproducing dialogue. (Mozilla, you had better stop underlining words that I am spelling correctly! Dialogue! Dialogue! Dialogue! I hate you.) I mean, reproducing dialogue in such a way that the reader gets a sense of what the speaker is like. And good on Mr. Salzman, because not a lot of people can do that, particularly in nonfiction, where very often everyone sounds like they are different-faced versions of the same person.

(Sidebar: Yay for John Berendt, seriously. How well did he reproduce the Lady Chablis? So, so, so well.)

Okay, now I’m having regrets. I’m feeling a little guilty about saying that True Notebooks wasn’t well-written. It wasn’t badly written, at all; it was just a trifle, a hair, a speck generically written. Which is okay! Because of how well he did the dialogue! It’s just that if it hadn’t been for the dialogue, you would have had a book on an interesting subject that was not ultimately a very interesting book, because although it was very funny in spots it was a trifle (a hair, a speck) generic. A trifle! Except for the dialogue which made everything okay, I swear it did, and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it!

(MOZILLA STOP UNDERLINING “DIALOGUE” IN RED! THAT IS HOW THE WORD IS SPELLED!)

This review has been the cause of a great deal of emotional turmoil – more, to be honest, than I was expecting – so I’m going to stop.

The Stolen Child, Keith Donohue

Don’t call me a fairy.  We don’t like to be called fairies anymore….I am a changeling – a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do.  We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own.  The hobgoblin becomes the child, and the child becomes a hobgoblin.  Not any boy or girl will do, but only those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world.  The changelings select carefully, for such opportunities might come along only once a decade or so.  A child who becomes part of our society might have to wait a century before his turn in the cycle arrives, when he can become a changeling and reenter the human world.

Recommended by: A Life in Books

The Stolen Child is about the lives of the changeling who takes the place of Henry Day in the human world, and the child who becomes Aniday in the changeling world.  They are both writing.  It is quite cool.

There are so many things you could do wrong with a plot like this, and Mr. Donohue steers clear of most of these things; or if he doesn’t quite steer clear of them, he has the excellent sense not to linger on them.  Like: Henry Day in the human world becomes paranoid and insane (but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you).  I think insanity must be so much more fun to write about than to read about.  I am not a fan of crazy person stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” being an exception (but it is brief!), so I was glad that he didn’t properly Descend Into Madness.  I was also glad that the whole plotline of the fairies frantically trying to find a place to live didn’t go on for too long, because it got boring fastishly.

This wasn’t one of those books that you can’t put down – unlike with Looking for Alaska, I had no problem closing this book at the end of a chapter and going to sleep – but it had its own appeal.  It was somewhat wistful, which I am in favor of, and although the fairies could easily have been soulless and aggravating (pitfall alert! and well played, Mr. Donohue), in the end they were endearing and melancholy.

Actually melancholy is a good word.  This is a melancholy book.  It creates a mood.  Now I am melancholy. But I liked this book.

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), Jerome K. Jerome

I’m sure someone told me about this book – probably a number of someones, as it is old and famous – but I haven’t got the faintest idea who. It is also an impossible book to review; so I will just say, It was very funny (as it intended to be), and I enjoyed it a lot. Here is an excerpt. The whole thing is like this:

The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the River Thames altogether. They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered: “Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.”

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this bloodthirsty strain. We never ought to allow our instincts of justice to degenerate into mere vindictiveness. It was a long while before I could get Harris to take a more Christian view of the subject, but I succeeded at last, and he promised me that he would spare the friends and relations at all events, and would not sing comic songs on the ruins.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.