The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies

You know what my favorite thing about this book was?  And don’t think I’m saying this in an anti-Rebel-Angels way at all, because I’m not and I loved Parlabane even though his (spoilers, I guess?) farewell letter was silly.  My favorite thing about this book is that the main character (I think I can call her that), Maria, has a mum that reads Tarot cards, and she reads the Five of Coins (our Pentacles) to mean a loss, but a far greater gain is coming.  The very next day, I was doing a reading for my sister, and I realized I had reached a friendly comfortable understanding of the Five of Pentacles, previously amongst my least favorite of the Tarot cards.  I don’t read it exactly like Maria’s mum, but I do feel friendly with it now.  So DO NOT FEAR.  If I am doing your cards and you come up Five of Pentacles, I am all set.  You will not have to worry anymore that I am slightly making shit up.

The Rebel Angels is set at a university, and it’s hard to describe the main thrust of the plot, because there are a number of things going on.  Student Maria Theotoky is trying to come to terms with her Gypsy heritage; her supervising professor and erstwhile lover Hollier is executing the will of a recently deceased colleague, along with fellow professor and priest Darcourt, and an unpleasant insinuating fellow called Urquhart McVarish like the guy (Urquhart anyway) in Strong Poison.  Hollier’s old decadent friend Parlabane, recently escaped from being a priest and intent on pestering Maria as much as possible, is also floating around making trouble.

Oh, and Hollier compliments Oscar Wilde, making it impossible for me to think ill of him.  He said a kinder and more generous person never walked in shoe leather – yes, I remember it his exact words, because it’s perfectly true of course! and because I am like Oscar Wilde’s Jewish mama and every time someone gives him a compliment I want to post it on a big sign and have a plane fly around with the message out in back.  You know how they do.

Reading the end didn’t make any difference to the rest of the book, which just goes to show it’s not terribly plot-driven.  Ordinarily I do not love a book as chatty as this one, but it held my interest anyway, which I feel like goes to show something but I don’t know what.  I was pleased that McVarish (spoilers!) was going to come to a sticky end.  I wanted him to come to a sticky end.  Actually I liked the way things wrapped up, because things were sort of done after that.  I felt.  In terms of that nobody had to keep worrying about Maria, and she had her manuscript to study and she could produce an important work.  Hooray.

I should read Rabelais.  I hear (not just from this book, from other places too) that he is a riot.

Other views: Jackie at Farm Lane Books, Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric

Tell me if I missed yours!

Perfect Match and Vanishing Acts, Jodi Picoult

Sigh.

I know she’s better than this.  Ms. Picoult is an excellent writer.  She does good dialogue, her characters are generally consistent, the little kids are really good little kids.  In each case where I have begun reading a book of hers, I have stayed up way past my bedtime finishing it.  (In the case of Vanishing Acts, I was already up thoroughly late because I was introducing my friend Teacher to Firefly and I didn’t want to let her leave until she totally liked it and had stopped saying snide things about Kaylee.  Victory!)  So I will not suggest that she is a bad writer, at all.

Here’s the thing.  Sister loves her some dramatic irony.  And, um, also just some irony.  Also just some drama.  She is much with the drama and the irony and the dramatic irony.  It detracts from her books.  I mean, I didn’t even think it was possible to use the adjective “silly” to describe a book all about child sex abuse, but I can’t use any other adjective to describe Perfect Match.  I don’t even know where to begin spoiling it.  I mean, there’s the part where Nina shoots the priest in court and then acts crazy; there’s the part where it turns out that not he but a similarly-named priest from Loosiana (of course) who happens to be the dead priest’s half-brother who donated bone marrow to him to cure him of leukemia.  I mean, because why not?  And then there’s the part where the husband, who’s spent the whole book being all judgey-judge, secretly flies down to Loosiana and poisons the real perpetrator with antifreeze.  Oh, and the requisite guy in love with the female protagonist, hovering sadly in the wings.

It’s a shame, you know?  I feel like Jodi Picoult could write much better books than she is actually writing – though I suppose she’s feeling if it’s not broke don’t fix it.  (That expression never fails to make me think of that moment in the Disney Beauty and the Beast where Cogsworth and Lumiere are showing Belle around the castle and he’s talking about the baroque tapestries and he says “And as I always saaaay, if it’s not baroque – don’t fix it!”  Anyone else?  Anyone?)  It’s not the writing, it’s the plots.  She can’t resist high drama, and she can’t resist crazy plot twists, and it detracts from her books.  Making them into guilty pleasure type books, when I really think they could be a lot more.

Which of course isn’t stopping me from being on my massive Jodi Picoult kick, so I’m just off to read Nineteen Minutes now.  I am sure I will feel much the same about that one.

The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue

Recommended by my mother.  Of course.

This is a book about a girl in 1920s New Orleans who dies prematurely, before anything about her life gets properly decided, particularly before she makes a decision about her boyfriend Andrew, a fact that proves troublesome to her after she dies.  She is called Razi, and she haunts a Baton Rouge couple, Amy and Scott, who are dealing with the fallout from a loss of their own.  The story flips back and forth between their story and Razi’s life as a – for lack of a better word – ghost, over the years, and Razi’s life when she was properly alive.  She is a really excellent character.  When she is alive she says to her Andrew, “One lifetime isn’t enough to make all the trouble of which I am capable.”

I really love the main character’s name – it’s Raziela, the meaning of which I’ve seen alternately given as God’s secret and My secret is God, both of which are wonderful.  I like My secret is God particularly, to be honest.  My secret is God.  That is a good sentence.  I will have to find a use for that sentence.

The Mercy of Thin Air was good.  I like books about people successfully coming to terms with things that have been problematic to them.  This was melancholy in bits and joyful in bits and with good characters and good dialogue and I just liked it a lot.  Plus, you know, sister’s from the home state and her characters are always going to places that I have been, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans.  Hooray for Louisiana!  We have good food!  We have streetcars!  If anywhere in this country was going to have ghosts, it would be us!  Up with Louisiana!

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card

The public librarian recommended Ender’s Game to my eighth-grade class, lo these many years ago, and from there I read just about all of Orson Scott Card’s books except the ones I thought looked lame.  And including several I thought wouldn’t be lame but were, after all.

Just reread these two.  I also recently reread Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead and Children of the Mind, and I guess it’s because I most recently read Children of the Mind that I felt like I never wanted to read anything by Orson Scott Card ever again as long as I lived and even if I died and dead people brought me books in the graveyard and the only book I had at all was Speaker for the Dead still even then I would reject it totally and just lie all dead and read nothing whatsoever.

Yeah, that was weird.  But the feeling passed, and I reread Ender’s Shadow first and then Ender’s Game.  And I was really struck by how much more I liked Ender’s Game than a) I remembered and b) Ender’s Shadow.  Really.  It’s a pretty good book.

However, reading all this Orson Scott Card has made me realize how dreadfully smug and self-righteous everybody is.  They really are.  All the characters are, they all are, not a single one of them isn’t.  They just all think they’re totally right and they say many smug and self-righteous things in defense of their positions.  I thought that the reason I didn’t ever want to read OSC again was that I had just overdosed on his books, but I think now it was overdosing on smugness and self-righteousness.

Which is funny because those are two qualities I possess in spades.

This isn’t much of a review.  I’ll go again.

Basically, the humans are under attack by these aliens they call buggers (or formics sometimes), and the most brilliant children of all the children are being recruited to learn to be commanders so that they can fight the buggers off, and the most brilliant child of all the children is Ender.  (Except in Ender’s Shadow it turns out that the most brilliant child of all the children is actually its protagonist, Bean.)  And because Ender is so brilliant, they are grooming him to command the entire space army that will destroy the buggers, and his life’s really unhappy in learning-to-defeat-aliens school.

It’s good.  I don’t mean to put anyone off by saying that all the characters are smug.  They’re still fun to read about, because you know, a lot of times you have a good idea but when people say snide things about it, you can’t immediately think of the clever thing to say to prove what a good idea your idea is; but the characters in these books?  They can always think of the clever thing to say to prove what good ideas their ideas are.

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.

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 Semi-Detached House, Emily Eden

Which can be read here, as it is out of copyright, and also this website is brilliant and I am all in favor of celebrating women writers.

Recommended by: Box of Books (whom I owe an apology)

I am sorry for griping abut The Semi-Attached Couple and its unbitchy nature.  Emily Eden is very amusing, and in many ways she is quite like Jane Austen but bitchier.  So I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions even though Helen in The Semi-Attached Couple was very annoying.  Now I have just finished The Semi-Detached House, and it was completely charming.  Everyone in it was so endearing, and they had such pleasant conversations, and everything worked out so neatly, although frankly I was hoping that a certain person and another certain person wouldn’t get engaged, and I thought briefly that Emily Eden was going to dare to leave one of the women single.  But she didn’t.  Oh well.

Here is what the sweet old mother says that made me laugh while I was waiting in line at the post office to send an envelope that will Decide My Future:

Lord Chester and Doctor Ayscough said such clever things about poisons; I thought I would remember them for fear of accidents; but I am not quite certain whether I have not forgotten part.  However, I know it is not wholesome to take strychnine in any great quantity, so mind that, girls; arsenic, which is very apt to get into puddings and gruel, should be avoided, and you should take something after it, if you do swallow any – but I forget what.  It was really very interesting, and I like a good murder that can’t be found out; that is, of course, it is very shocking, but I like to hear about it.

Awww.  She’s cute.  Whenever anyone says “shocking” now, I think of that adorable BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey (which has already come on Masterpiece Theatre, so you’ve missed it if you didn’t see it) and adorable Felicity Whatsit who plays Catherine, with her big wide eyes and Isabella telling her “It is the most shocking and horrid thing in all the world!”  Oh, and also, the sweet old mother has two daughters, and one time they are talking to a girl who is in some difficulties, and

They were induced to adopt their usual resource, and to call to mamma to come and satisfy the disastrous state of Miss Monteneros’s existence.

Story of my LIFE.  And here is a description of a boat called an outrigger which I don’t know what that is, but the description sounds exactly like my views of kayaks:

It may be necessary to explain that [it is] an apology for a boat, and, apparently, a feeble imitation of a plank – that the individual who hazards his own life in it is happily prevented, by its absurd form, from making any other person a sharer in his danger – that he is liable to be overset by any passing steamer, or by the slightest change of his own posture – that it is difficult to conceive how he ever got into such a thing, or how he is ever to get out of it again, and that the effect he produces on an unprejudiced spectator is that of an aquatic mouse caught in a boat-trap, from which he will never emerge alive, notwithstanding the continual struggle he appears to keep up.

Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski

Recommended by: imani, more or less. Or rather, she mentioned The Victorian Chaise-Longue, also by Marghanita Laski, and I picked up Little Boy Lost at the library at the same time. So “recommended” is actually a pretty big stretch on this, but whatever.

For a while I was convinced that this book had to be in translation. It just had these weird bits that you get when you are reading books in translation, and the author’s name is unusual and might quite easily have been foreign; and anyway I was all set to write this review and say I hate reading books in translation.

Which is absolutely true, and probably the reason I have never got on well with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or any Russian writers ever (not counting Nabokov who wrote in English and I claim him as an American writer).

Instead I guess I have to say that Little Boy Lost just baffled me. It’s about an Englishman called Hilary whose Polish wife Lisa died at the hands of the Nazis, and whose son, who was with Lisa until shortly before the Gestapo got her, is missing. And might be dead. Or might not. During the war, Lisa’s friend’s husband Pierre is in France trying to find the kid, and at the end of the war Hilary comes to France to check how it’s going and go meet the only kid it could possibly be. And it’s very weird because one moment he’s all in total agony about everything, and the next moment he’s like, Whatevs, glad you’re handling that tracking-the-kid-down thing, and just let me know what you find out. Or one moment he’s bitter and miserable and thinks that finding his son is his only chance for happiness, and then two pages later it’ll be this:

He added with a kind of delight, “It’s a splendidly romantic place to begin a search from.”

And okay, officially I can excuse this in a lot of different ways. Like: Losing a kid is very baffling, and a lot of time has gone by, and he doesn’t know what to feel. Or: You can’t be in total agony all the time and you might as well take pleasure where you can like in how romantic a place is.

But I’m sorry. He sounds like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane having fun tracking down the murderer in Have His Carcase, which is officially Very Serious Business but is not infrequently just an excuse for them to enjoy themselves and be silly and humorously appreciate the drama of the situation. And that’s what Hilary sounds like he’s doing here, although actually he’s looking for his kid. He carries on being silly for another minute or two and then back he goes into misery, without seeming to notice that his mood changed at all.

(Sidebar: Audrey Niffenegger says that Henry and Clare were based on Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I just can hardly imagine two people less like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, which I’m sure is partly due to the characters’ developing a great deal during the writing process but is also indicative of how amazingly differently people read. John Tregarth and Peter Wimsey is a fair enough connection, but Henry DeTamble and Peter Wimsey, I can’t see it.)

What was good – excellent, actually – about this book were the interactions between Hilary and the little orphanage boy who might or might not be his son. These bits of the book were tense and interesting and moving, and if they hadn’t been there I would have gone straight to the end, discovered what was going to happen, and chucked the book down without finishing it, because the rest of the bits (mostly) were not interesting at all. I think this is because Hilary never really settles into a clear character and that made it difficult to care much what happened to him. Jean, the little boy, is a real boy, and that, I believe, is why the bits with him come off gorgeously.

SPOILER

BIG ONE

The other thing I didn’t like was that Hilary decides at the end that he can love this boy as a son even though he isn’t sure it’s his son, and then when he’s going back to the orphanage to fetch him, Jean says something that makes it entirely clear he’s the right kid. I think ambiguity would have been better, to have Jean say something that suggests he’s remembering something about his life before the orphanage that indicates he’s Hilary’s son, but still leave the reader in some doubt.

Nonetheless I enjoyed Little Boy Lost, and I can easily see picking it up again sometime. At the library. I wouldn’t buy it, unless, I suppose, I had a massive library and lots of money to buy books just on the strength of feeling that I might possibly someday want to read them again maybe.