The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Every January, I reread The Graveyard Book. A rainy day will come, or I’ll be in bed with a cold, and this overwhelming urge to pull it off the shelf again overcomes me. Even the year it was published, I read it again in January. I don’t know why it has such a strong influence on me during this time of year, but I suspect it’s something to do with the sense of mystery that permeates the novel and these early dark days of winter.

I wrote a letter to Gaiman the second or third time I read it, and I searched my computer desperately for a copy because honestly, few things are funnier than seeing me geek out over an author. Unfortunately, although I remember saving a copy before I sent it out, it’s gone now. I can’t even recreate what I wrote, although I know I spent an hour or so working on it while sitting on the couch, watching the rain beat against the window. I also remember the feeling I had – the feeling I always have – after I put this book down. It’s like staring up at the world from the bottom of deep crevasse; up there, the light dances with its shadow and the storms passing make the ground greener, rather than just damp. It’s possible to hear voices, and doors slamming, dogs barking at the music playing too loudly, but deep down, in this narrow reach of earth, everything is muted. Soft-edged. There’s magic, and it’s the kind that’s a little bit dark.

It’s no coincidence, I’m certain, that this is the same feeling I get whenever I enter a cemetery. Each has a quality, an air that’s nearly tangible. No matter how small, walking through those gates, I can feel a change. It’s tinged with the knowledge that even if I felt the urge to shout, it would be tamped down by whatever energy it is I’m experiencing.

That Gaiman wrote a book that so perfectly captured this – well, I suppose it’s to be expected; he’s been one of my favorite authors for twenty years now, after all. His are books that I don’t push on everyone, but instead save for kindred reading spirits. It isn’t fair, really, that I do that, but his writing is…well, it’s a whisper. To me, it embodies the phrase, “walk gently but carry a big stick.” In Gaiman’s books, the wisest characters never forget that.

I have to say that I also love the brutal elegance of this little book. This is a novel I would give to children who don’t like to read (those who do have hopefully already discovered it). It’s what I would call a spiderweb book – delicate, and delightfully intricate, while also being ferociously strong and predatory and frightening. Without a doubt, those are my favorites for young audiences. I don’t think children need mild-mannered books or sanitized reading experiences. I believe they crave an element of danger and darkness because those are the things that are most difficult to face in reality. Reading is a safe space to engage in the consideration of challenging circumstances, and having been a very anxious child myself, I was constantly drawn to books that forced me to face my worst fears. There was something almost magical about it.

Some books seem to spring forth and beg to empower young readers. For me, this will always be one that does just that. It’s hard to think less of one’s self when a book demands respect, when it trusts the intellect of the reader, and when it’s written with so much love for the people lucky enough to turn its pages.

 

For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth, Lynne Rae Perkins

In a few weeks, I’m going to become one of the counselors for the high school youth group at my church. I’m not at all sure I’m qualified for this position because I swear indiscriminately, consider candy and wine to be the foundation of the food pyramid, and transform into a curmudgeonly old man when asked about cell phones, Facebook, and Justin Bieber. I often feel exhausted when it comes to finding common ground with this age group, which is strange because one of my passions is finding books I think these no longer children/not yet adults will get excited about.

I think part of the problem is that I don’t really know any teenagers anymore, and in a large anonymous group, they can’t help but be irritating (to be fair, I feel the same way about hipsters, hippies, yuppies, dog-lovers, cyclists etc etc when faced with an unknown hoard…). I’m far enough from my own adolescence that I find it both nostalgic and also stupefying that I made the choices I did, and even the youngest siblings of my friends have graduated from college now. My friends with children have, at the very remotest end, tweens, but more commonly, infants and toddlers.

Now there’s an age group I can get behind. Their behaviors might be extreme, but young children are pretty transparent to me, and I love them for all their stickiness and difficulties.  Teenagers, though, I’m baffled by completely. How do I talk to them? Why do they think I’m so old when I could swear a second ago I was their age? Who let them have smart phones? What could I possibly have to offer? All I can do is keep reminding myself, don’t panic. If they smell your fear, it’s over.

I needed a book that would  remind me of why I loved being a teenager as much as I did. As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth was the perfect choice. Perkins’ young protagonist, Ry, seems ordinary, but as his story unfolds, what makes him special is gently brought to light. This is an adventure story that takes place firmly in reality. There are no high-speed chases, no flying cars, no vampires. He’s just a kid experiencing his first taste of independence; the fortunate part is that we get to see a wonderful new part of him appear in the process.

I kept thinking to myself as I read it, I know this guy. He’s a little forgetful, and sometimes he makes choices that, while not wild and crazy, are just dumb enough to get the story going. He’s sweet and trusting, and the people he chooses to have faith in (strangers!) are good people – flawed adults, but helpful and well-intentioned. I can’t help but love this book because it lives in the world, the one that was especially familiar to me when I was young. Perkins manages to make it completely plausible that Ry would end up without his cell phone in the middle of nowhere after missing a train while his parents are on vacation and his grandfather isn’t answering the phone at home. He has no choice but to make his own way home, and to grow up, and to see that the world is a bigger place than he had ever experienced before. That’s what being a teenager is all about, after all.

Thinking of his mother’s voice made him think of his mother. He thought of how she looked when he said something she thought was funny. At first her face stayed the same, except for her eyes. They would twinkle. Then the shape of her mouth and cheeks would shift almost imperceptibly into her secretly amused expression. It was weird not to know where she was. She didn’t know where he was, either. Both of them sort of thought they did, but in a useless, non-specific way. Like, oh yeah, my needle is right over there. In that haystack.” (p73)

To learn more about Lynne Rae Perkins, go here.

Summerland (part the first), Michael Chabon

The last two summers have been the first that I haven’t been either teaching school or a student, and I’ve discovered that I hate the rhythm (or complete lack thereof) of non-educational adult pursuits. It’s June. Summer is here. I want nothing more than to go swimming (even though I hate bathing suits), eat ice cream (so I’m lactose intolerant, who cares!), and laze around yelling out things like “I’m bored” (actually, that one, I’ve totally been doing). I don’t want my vacation portioned out to me one or two weeks at a time. I want two and a half glorious months of sitting in air-conditioned movie theatres, struggling to find a parking spot at the beach, and eating food someone else has cooked for me on the grill while being fanned with palm leaves. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but until the Flip Flop Uprising (copyright pending), I have to keep sitting at my computer at least pretending to work.

This would probably turn out a lot better if I wasn’t self-employed, since it turns out that doing no work means receiving no pay. Of course, it also means that technically (as my annoyed friends point out to me all the time), this means I can take “vacation days” whenever I want. So it’s a Tuesday and you’re uninspired? Watch an NCIS marathon and paint each one of your nails a different color! And I can’t completely argue with this logic because it’s true, I do have a lot more freedom than I used to, and trust me, I appreciate that.

The problem is, if I take Tuesday off, I don’t get paid. And if on Wednesday, I wake up still wishing it were vacation, I can goof off, but I still won’t get paid, and my deadlines will be that much stickier. So the problem is not that I have no freedom, it’s that at the moment, I lack the discipline necessary to ignore it.

It’s rare for me to be in such a long slump because I usually like getting things done ahead of time. I get a rush from…what’s the opposite of procrastination? Whatever it is, I love it because it means I can kick back and taunt all of my friends, who, collectively, have the procrastination powers of a demigod (at least). So at times like this, when, say, I haven’t finished the novel I want to review, I don’t feel the rush I’ve heard procrastinators get nearing a deadline. Nope. Instead I feel distracted, irritable, and disappointed that I let you guys down with my lack of focus.

Because Summerland, so far, is a great book. I mean, it’s Michael Chabon, so that goes without saying. His writing is the kind I just sink into until my living room falls away and suddenly I’m surrounded by summer on a little island off the coast in the Pacific Northwest. It’s lovely there, cool and damp, and the children are playing baseball – a game I hated with a vengeance as a child but which I dearly love now – although it’s not my skills that have improved, just my perspective.

It was here, playing for the Snake Island Wapatos amid the cottonwoods and wildflower glades of the seventy-two-team Flathead League, that he had first begun, in his words, “to grasp the fundamental truth: a baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.” (pg 63)

See what I’m dealing with here?! Chabon is such a poetic novelist that he makes it impossible for me to want to read when instead I could be out enjoying long-lit summer days. It makes no difference that his characters are nicely rounded, that his plot is well-paced, that his writing in general makes me want to rend my garments in jealousy – none of that means a thing when held up against the possibility of disappearing into summer.

Because we all deserve that chance, even if we’ve long out-grown true summer vacations (the kind that go on long enough for us to get thoroughly bored with doing nothing). So I’m going to take the rest of this book to the lake nearby, and I’m going to try to finish it for you by Monday, but if I get distracted out there by frisbees and baby ducks and fresh squeezed lemonade, well, we’ve only the summer to blame…

To find our more about Michael Chabon, check out his excellent site here.

Winterling, Sarah Prineas

I went through a period of time a few years ago when I was reading almost exclusively Young Adult and Middle Grade novels. It seemed like every time I turned around, another great novel was being published, or a beloved series was on the rise. I have always loved those books because as a child, they offered a sense of adventure, an escape from the tedious stories we often read in school, and as an adult, they offered solace from the reality of the many poor decisions I had made. When I picked up a book, I needed to remove myself from the tedious life decisions that sometimes accompany adulthood, and a large part of me wanted to be transported back to that sense of adventure I felt facing life as a teenager.

ImageMore recently, I’ve been drawn to a wider range of genres and I’ve been gratified to find so much pleasure in these less explored territories. I still love books written for younger audiences though, and when I need a break from more serious novels (or the large collection of memoirs I’ve suddenly found myself in possession of), it’s wonderful to turn to a light fantasy novel like Sarah Prineas’ Winterling.

Because I’ve found myself a little out of practice reading for the Middle Grade audience, I was initially surprised by the simplicity of the characters in this book. While I found them enjoyable to read, they lacked the depth I have come to expect from the (frankly astonishing) books I’ve read over the winter. The evil characters were so evil! The good characters so earnest! Everything was black and white, and even if magic was tearing two worlds apart, I was caught off-guard by how straightforward the plot was.

Then I remembered being ten years old and pulling books like this down from the shelf in the library. Back then, my local branch had a very small section of books for teens (especially young teens), and it was always a joy to find a book like this one, with a tenacious female protagonist who wasn’t so unbelievably brave that I couldn’t imagine myself in her shoes. I loved that I knew who I could trust and who was my enemy – life was so much less clear than that in junior high, and books like Winterling provided just the escape I needed. The world created was simple but magical, the characters peopled by hidden allies, and it all took place in an alternate dimension that seemed just barely out of reach.

Finding books like this that appeal to a younger audience (and their parents) but are also well-written are surprisingly rare. I feel strongly that books with difficult content are often appropriate for people younger than they’re written for, and that many younger readers not only like but need those books; however, sometimes it’s nice to read a novel that doesn’t raise the tough questions. It’s like picking up Anne of Green Gables or Howl’s Moving Castle – funny and sweet with a little adventure mixed in. This is a book that offers a few hours of escape, a refuge from homework and texting and endless after-school commitments. It’s tough being a kid; it may look enviable or easy sometimes from where we stand mired in the challenges of adulthood, but the human condition is not a path free of thorns at any age. Sometimes we all just need an afternoon off, and Winterling is a lovely place to stop and rest for a while.

Visit Sarah Prineas at her site here.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (entry, the 2nd), Catherynne M Valente

My trainer and I were having a conversation today that gave me pause (this was in between wind sprints, which he claims have something to do with improving my VO2 max…I just call it Zombie Avoidance Tactics with Associated Panting…). He was asking me if I’d read The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books, and I told him, yes, to both, and hadn’t I told him only last week that he would love The Hunger Games with all the killing and the running and the girl power (he’s writing his thesis on training young women athletes)?!

“Yes,” he said. “You did mention it, but you were disgusting and sweaty so I couldn’t take you seriously.” At least, I assume that’s what he was thinking, because to be honest, I would not trust a girl who sweats as much as I do either.

Just kidding. What he was actually saying, without saying it at all, is that he was a boy (well, a twenty-five year old male, but who are we kidding) and that boys and books have a rocky relationship, especially if said boy is also athletic and defines himself firmly in the physical realm. For all I’m scared of jumping hurdles and swinging a baseball bat in front of crowds of people who look much better in spandex than I do, my trainer is equally drawn to and afraid of books.

He wants to like them. He talks to me about them a lot, although always with a sheepish expression. He really loves to learn, but he’s most comfortable at seminars and in lectures. He seemed so hopeful today, while I was trying to hold myself in plank, inquiring whether there were lots of good books out there for guys.

“Maria,” he said, “are there lots of good books out there for guys?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I can think plenty of books you’d like.”

“Really?” I could tell from his voice that he didn’t believe me one bit.

“Yes.”

“Huh.”

We left it at that, but I went home disappointed that I hadn’t convinced him that books exist on every topic under, over, and through the sun. I thought of how much he would love The Hunger Games, or Into Thin Air, or Born to Run, or Ender’s Game, or Why I Fight…I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll come to the point that connects this conversation with my thoughts on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

The paragraph from this book that I shared on Monday, it spoke to how heavy a heart grows from reading. The whole book weaves in and out of its own narrative to prove just that point. And even September, its twelve-year-old protagonist, understands this on a fundamental level – reading about experiences outside of our own make our lives and thoughts and dreams that much richer and more expansive. Reading allows us a landscape to play out our wildest desires and most hidden fears without relinquishing power. It’s liberating even while it bears down our hearts with the cares of the world.

Awhile back, I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I didn’t know anything about living on a reservation before I read it (aside from the very little we’re taught in school), but he allowed me inside his story so that a part of me could be opened to the hardships and humor of a world far removed from the one I live in. And when Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) was found dead this past weekend, a man who I only knew from the pages of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, I felt an intensity of loss I never expected – because McDougall wrote of his friend with such frank tenderness and esteem, I too experienced a deep stillness at the news his unexpected passing.

It really doesn’t matter whether we like fiction or biographies or poetry or stories written for children – it’s a trusting of books that opens us to the rawness of loving other people, different people, hard to imagine or even like people. I love that Valente’s book uses one girl’s adventure to explore this idea in a way that most adults would instantly grasp and savor, and that children will wonder at and explore with every passing year.

In her words:

I shall tell you what Calpurnia Farthing said. “The riddle of the Ravished,” she whispered, “is that they must always go down into the black naked and lonesome. But they cannot come back up into the light alone.” (pg 132)

or, as Lev Grossman wrote, in his crushingly true fashion, at the end of The Magician King:

He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)

I have heard it said many times that we come into this world alone, and that we will leave it the same way. And, you see, alone, we are all tired, broken, ignorant. We are solitary heroes in search of a story. Thank goodness, then, for friends and enemies,  for misunderstandings, adventure, and raw, heavy hearts in the process of growing up.

Beauty, Robin McKinley

When I was back east visiting my family last week, a dear family friend gave me a few books by Robin McKinley as a belated birthday present. While we were discussing in what order I should read them, she mentioned this book, Beauty, which she had given me years ago for another birthday. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with my copy, but it turns out, my mother had borrowed it then stuck it on her own shelf (a habit both of us have, much to our mutual dismay!) so I pulled it out and tossed it into my suitcase.

The friend who had gifted me these books dearly loves the story of Beauty and the Beast, and although I’m not positive she knew this when she gave the book to me, it’s also my favorite fairy tale. As a child, it was the only Disney movie I could stand, and as I got older, I sought out other retellings. Without a doubt, this is the best one I’ve found so far, although I’ve discovered in my questing that there are infinite versions of the story, and there may well be one out in the world I will enjoy more.

One of the qualities I most love about McKinley though is her ability to write books intended for a young audience that are also enjoyable for an older one. I could easily have read this book when I was ten and loved it, and twenty years later, I envy her talent in creating such a richly textured world for this familiar tale.

During this reading, I was especially drawn to the home she creates for Beauty and her family in the countryside. It’s warm and cozy – a cheerfulness that comes from a combination of hard work and being surrounded by family pervades this section – and when Beauty leaves it behind to live in the Beast’s much grander castle, I found myself entrenched in a melancholy I couldn’t shake. For all the exquisite gardens, gowns, and food, even for his library holding every book ever written (even those not penned yet), I found myself longing for her to return to her old, simple life. Why couldn’t the Beast join  her family there, leaving the castle behind for village life? Why couldn’t the tidy wrap-up leave them chopping wood together, or tending to the vegetable garden? Why is it happily ever after could only take place with such extravagant wealth shrouding the couple?

While I’m not saying money can’t buy any happiness at all (I have seen the misery of financial hardship), I find that a happy life engaged in joyful work is much more satisfying to me than an easy life where a person has nothing but time to think about his or her problems. It also just seems dull, the perfection McKinley describes – Beauty’s days in the castle, spent riding and reading and changing clothes, would grow dull after a while. It’s like a vacation that will never end, and yet what makes a vacation really wonderful is its contrast to daily life.

I don’t remember feeling this way when I read this book years ago, but as an adult, the lives I most admire are those of friends who know how to cook everything, who eat from their own gardens, who home school ingeniously, and who seem to be able to mend anything and everything in a pinch. This is the life Beauty leaves for the Beast, and I just find myself wondering if they wouldn’t both be happier returning to that, together…

You can find the most up-to-date information about Robin McKinley at her blog, http://robinmckinleysblog.com/

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

Before I talk about The Book of Lost Things, I just want to take a moment to apologize for not posting on Monday. I was fortunate enough to have one of my best friends visiting all of last week, and we were so busy that I only had time to read half of this book while she was here; when Monday came and she had to go back to New York, it was a holiday and I wanted to spend it with my husband. I really appreciate all of you who stop by though – it’s a wonderful mix of dear friends and distant ones, as well as book-loving strangers and internet wanderers – and I hate to disappoint by missing a day. I thought about posting about a book I’d already read, but I was so deeply embroiled in this story that I didn’t have the desire to read another. (Also, to be completely honest, we started watching Downton Abbey last week and are now only one episode away from the end of season 2 – if any show has a thick nest of story to it, it’s that one!)

I started reading The Book of Lost Things at Starbucks last Wednesday while my friend was meeting with a west coast client. I had stumbled upon a recommendation for it on Amazon (it turns out that if you buy enough books in one place, the internet starts to use its fancy algorithms to uncover what you like) and it seemed liked a good choice for a cold, blustery day (there’s something about British and Irish writers, I believe, that resonates with strange, off-season weather).

I was hooked immediately. This is a YA book, at least in my opinion, even though David, the protagonist, is only twelve (certainly young for the genre). I probably got almost half way through this book while I was waiting for her, its action just pulling me along while the people at the tables closest to me did their best to distract by talking absurdly loudly about the economy and constantly scraping their chairs on the floors.

It wasn’t until that night, when I woke up in a sweat, that I realized how deeply disturbing the book really was. In the bright light of day (and I chose to finish it in the bright light of day, I assure you), it seemed like a relatively harmless fairytale – a quest for an angry, grieving boy that leads him into a nightmare world just a slip away from his own. But I’m a grown-up. I know that Loup (half-men/half-wolves) don’t exist. I know it’s not possible to sew the heads of children to the bodies of animals (at least not and keep them alive). I know that the horrors of David’s world are the fears incarnate of a child struggling to overcome the loss of his mother and the displacement within his family by a stepmother and new baby brother.

And yet, the brutality of the world David stumbles into, blinded by jealousy of his young, needy brother and furious at his father for letting go of his mother too quickly, is sickening. That he finds strength to stand against such horrors with grace and dignity and wit are remarkable, but for me, I feel soiled by such a place existing even in the imagination. Connolly is an exceptional writer, compelling and supremely gifted at creating truly shocking levels of depravity. This may stem from the fact that this is his first non-mystery/crime/thriller novel, so the bulk of his experience is in exploring the ideas of salvation and morality in context to acts of human brutality.

Although I couldn’t find anything to indicate that John Connolly might write more books in this vein (he is still actively publishing a series of crime novels, the latest of which came out last year), he has a real gift for capturing genuine emotion within a fantasy scenario. This book would have scared the bejesus out of me at twelve, but I can imagine it appealing to a huge audience at any age if only because he unflinchingly looks into the most twisted parts of the human psyche without giving up hope.

More information about John Connolly can be found at http://www.johnconnollybooks.com/ (sidenote: while looking for more info about The Book of Lost Things, I discovered that Connolly won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel and the Shamus Award for Best Private Eye Novel – if anyone has read Every Dead Thing and can recommend it, I’d be happy to hear about it. I read crime novels only occasionally, and only if someone can give me a strong reason to, but I have to admit, he’s so talented, I’m curious…)

Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I have to admit straight off the bat, this is not one of my all-time favorite books. In fact, I was iffy about even posting about it here, but I love Diana Wynne Jones so much that it was making me sad not to give credit where credit’s due. She was a fantastic writer, and Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most wonderful MG fantasy novels I’ve read, so every once in a while, I grab another one of her books to see how it compares.

20120213-153332.jpgI can’t remember exactly where the recommendation for this book came from, but I’m not alone among Wynne Jones fans in finding her books to be a mixed bag. This particular story had wonderful characters – a young absent-minded professor who adopts a boy with a mysterious past, a child who can change from dog to boy and back again, a sassy secretary who also trains horses, and a feuding housekeeper and gardener who keep everyone else on their toes – each of whom is lovingly developed and integral to the story.

Unfortunately, the story itself is a little thin. One of Wynne Jones’ strong suits is creating a life for her characters and then putting it into motion. The action in her books stems from those routines, and she has created some great novels using this rather unusual technique. The Enchanted Glass, however, was big on establishing and maintaining the relationships between the characters, and between the characters and the setting, but lacked the suspense necessary to make the climax as believable as I had hoped for.

I think the reason the book has stayed with me for a few weeks regardless of its flaws is that in my long-form writing, I often (okay, always) run into the same challenge. I fall so in love with the characters that I start moving them from one little scene to the next without taking the big picture into consideration. Of course, the problem there is that nobody else really wants to read a love letter from author to characters! Readers, especially readers of MG or YA fantasy expect (or at least hope for) movement, and motivation for that movement, at least a few bated breath moments, and most certainly some action leading up to the vanquishing of whoever needs to be vanquished. Without those elements, a reader, and especially a young reader, will rightly lose interest in the story being told.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who teaches elementary grade English, and she was talking about how a part of reading comprehension is being able to predict what will happen in a story based on the title, chapter headings, pictures, covers, and already completed text. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms before, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Enchanted Glass fails to provide key details to encourage the reader to project or question the direction of the story. As always, I loved entering the world she created for me, I just wished there was more happening in the quiet British countryside, if not for me, then for the children who will hopefully enjoy her writing for many years to come.