About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, May 18, 2009

#46 - Nixonland

Whew. I finally finished Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein (Scribner, 2008) last night. I'll write a real review later, but in the meantime, the Cliff Notes version is: Long and slow-going at times, but a fascinating read if you're at all interested in contemporary U.S. history and politics.

Well, looks like I won't have time for much more than the above, as I've fallen several books behind. So, the short version it is. Nixonland is a history of Richard Nixon's rise to power (the bulk of the action occurs between Lyndon Johnson's defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1965 and Nixon's landslide re-election in 1972, though Perlstein does detour back in time to revisit Nixon's earlier years), and an argument about how his use of that power continues to affect American politics today. In short, he traces many of the politics of division that we now take for granted -- specifically, of the right wing's appeal to middle America (a/k/a The Silent Majority, or the Orthagonians ... for a definition of the latter, you'll need to read the book) on Nixon's actions. For a more detailed review, check out this one in the Atlantic Monthly, or this one by George Will in the New York Times. I will add, though, that I especially enjoyed the cameo appearances by many who would later rise to political power: young Oxfordite Bill Clinton leading an anti-war rally at the U.S. Embassy in London; Karl Rove as a sleazy-even-then young RNC campaigner; Jesse Jackson as the leader of the first post-Daley Illinois delegation to the Democratic Convention; a less-than-articulate George W. Bush describing the thrill of his first solo flight

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Catching Up

All right, for more than a week I've been meaning to finish my review for #45 - The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). I've got a bazillion pages marked that I wanted to quote, I'm still slogging through Nixonland (ah, the joy of books that are tough going, but interesting enough that you don't want to give them up. Is this just me?) ... and I've concluded that if I wait till I have time to write the perfect review, it's never gonna happen. So there we are.

As you may have guessed, I'm a big fan of college and coming-of-age novels; I work at a university, for crying out loud. Well, The Secret History sorta falls into these categories, but wasn't at all what I'd expected. It's the story of an odd, exclusive group of intellectuals at Hampden College (a fictitious Vermont liberal arts college reportedly based on Bennington) who murder one of their own. This isn't giving anything away, as the first page finds our narrator -- Richard, an unlikely working-class transplant from the distinctly un-Californian California town of Plano -- remembering and reflecting on the discovery of Bunny's body. After the prologue, we flash back to Richard's initial arrival on campus. While he's eager to continue his study of Greek, he quickly learns from his advisor that the sole Greek professor, Julian, is somewhat of an odd duck, admitting only the smallest handful of students to his courses, and those for somewhat inscrutable reasons of his own.

After jumping through some hoops, of course, Richard gets in, and is quickly persuaded to drop all his other courses and switch advisors to devote the entire term to studying with Julian. He's slowly absorbed into the insular clique of Julian's students: the scholarly and methodical Henry, the ringleader; flamboyant but fragile Francis; ethereal and kindly twins Charles and Camilla; and the doomed and frankly obnoxious Bunny. How we get from the first unreal weekend at Francis's country estate to Bunny's harrowing death and beyond provides the meat of the story.

While I enjoyed the book, I found it difficult to get into at first -- largely because none of the principals are especially likeable. This may, however, be deliberate; as Richard Threadgall's review on Amazon puts it,

"[The Secret History] is a rapturous, beautiful, intricate and balanced work of art; it is also oddly archaic, strangely disconnected from reality, and oftentimes more dissolute than well-worked. In praise, its insight into the kind of effete degeneracy that seems to well up when one isolates maturing intellectuals with one another is chillingly apt: It is apt, however, more in the sense of metaphor than in any naturalistic sense. The romance, luxuriousness, and cruel beauty of the cultivated degeneracy Tartt takes as her theme is evoked with brilliance and not inconsiderable talent."

Tartt does capture the disorienting nature of a new college student's loneliness achingly well, particularly in her description of Richard's remaining on campus for the Christmas break. All in all, this is an interesting if occasionally plodding meditation about the fleeting nature of youth, beauty, and college friendships, and the seductive nature of intellectual pursuits. Not a quick beach read, but certainly recommended if you like something to sink your teeth into now and then.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

#44 - The Given Day

My latest read, The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins, 2008), was awesome, but a darned tough one to review. That's not a bad thing -- just a reflection that this is a big, sweeping book with tons going on, and it's hard to capture all the essential points without wearing out my keyboard. This was the first book I'd read by this author, but I thought I knew what I was getting into. Janet Maslin's New York Times review describes the pre-Given Day Lehane as "an author of detective novels that make good movies and tell devastatingly bleak Boston stories" (referring to Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River). While The Given Day is both cinematic and bleak, it's also a lot more than that; it's a vivid story of family, identity, race, class, and social change. (Did I miss anything? Can you tell I really liked this book?)

The Given Day is set in Boston beginning in late 1918, as the Great War is winding down, and a virulent flu pandemic is ramping up. It tells the story of Danny Coughlin, the eldest son of an Irish-born police captain who, though a cop himself, has some doubts about the life and mileu his father inhabits:

"Thomas Coughlin alternated between a variety of demeanors and all coming and going with the speed of a spooked horse that it was easy to forget that they were all aspects of a man who was certain he was doing good. Thomas Coughlin was its servant. The good. Its salesman, its parade marshal, catcher of the dogs who nipped its ankles, pallbearer for its fallen friends, cajoler of its wavering allies.

"The question remained, as it had throughout Danny's life, as to what exactly the good was. It had something to do with loyalty and something to do with the primacy of a man's honor. It was tied up in duty, and it assumed a tacit understanding of all the things about it that need never be
spoken aloud. ... It was above all, as far as Danny understood it, committed to the idea that those who exemplified the good in public were allowed certain exemptions as to how they behaved in private."
Danny's independent streak, coupled with the sting of his recent breakup with long-time Coughlin family servant Nora Shea, have led him to move out of his family's comfortable home into a modest apartment in the Italian-dominated North End. In the novel's early chapters, two chance events occur that will irrevocably change Danny's life: a flu-carrying Army ship is quarantined in Boston harbor, and and unwed pregnant neighbor goes into labor while home alone. After Danny and his partner, Steve Coyle, are assigned to inspect and escort the infected ship, Steve contracts a case of the grippe, and miraculously survives ... only to find himself too weak to work, denied disability benefits, and thus penniless. Moved by his plight, Danny begins accompanying Steve to meetings of the embryonic police union, the Boston Social Club, and finds himself questioning the conventional wisdom about unions being radical and un-American. "Danny couldn't understand why most of the outlawed or targeted unions deserved their fate. Time and again what was renounced as treasonous rhetoric was merely a man standing before a crowd and demanding to be treated as a man."

At the same time, after saving his neighbor's life by taking her to a nearby clinic, Danny is befriended by her father, Federico, and embarks on a secret affair with Tessa herself. This ends abruptly when he learns that Federico and Tessa are not only married, but lead a particularly violent band of radical anarchists. Seizing their opportunity, Danny's father and godfather convince him to go undercover, and infiltrate Boston's underground leftist organizations. While Danny quickly notices that these organizations are far less dangerous than they're made out to be, and have far more in common with the Boston Social Club, these distinctions are lost on his superior officers, as evidenced by an outburst that may sound oddly familiar to 21st-century Americans:

"You say 'Bolsheviks' or 'Communists' like there are nuances here the rest of us are too thick to grasp. They're not different -- they're f-----g terrorists. Every last one. This country's heading for one hell of a showdown, Officer. We think that showdown will happen on May Day. That you won't be able to swing a cat without hitting some revolutionary with a bomb or a rifle. And if that occurs, this country will tear itself apart. Picture it -- the bodies of innocent Americans strewn all over our streets. Thousands of kids, mothers, workingmen. And for what? Because these
c---------s hate the life we have. Because it's better than theirs. Because we're better than them. We're richer, we're freer, we've got a lot of the best real estate in a world that's mostly desert or undrinkable ocean. But we don't hoard that, we share. Do they thank us for sharing? For welcoming them to our shores? No. They try to kill us.'"
As Danny's foundation begins to shift, a crack African-American baseball player named Luther Laurence independently sees his own life turn upside down. When his girlfriend Lila gets pregnant, the two flee Ohio for good jobs and prosperity in the oil boomtown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Lila's devout and appearance-conscious aunt hastily summons a preacher to set things right. The weight of sudden marriage and impending fatherhood sits heavily on Luther, though, and he gets caught up in the drinking, drugging, and gambling lifestyle of his friend Jessie Tell. When ruthless crime boss Deacon Broscious catches Jessie stealing from him, he blames Luther for not snitching, and sends the two men out with orders to collect from his debtors in grippe-afflicted households, Or Else. They comply, but at too high a price. When they return with their booty, a fight breaks out, and both Jessie and Deacon are killed. Luther escapes with his life, but bereft of Lila and their unborn baby, and ultimately makes his way to Boston.

And that's just setting the stage. Luther's and Danny's personal stories, along with those of several lesser actors (Danny's father, Captain Thomas Coughlin; brothers Connor and Joe; godfather Ed McKenna) and a smattering of famous guest stars (Babe Ruth, Eugene O'Neill, a young J. Edgar Hoover) play out against a backdrop of tumult and social upheaval. The Great War and Russian Revolution loom large in the public consciousness; a flu pandemic is sweeping the country; urban disaster takes a turn for the surreal when a molasses tank explodes , and then the police go on strike. "It was a crazy summer. no predicting it. Every time Babe thought he had a grip on it, it slipped free and went running off like a barnyard pig that smelled the ax." For a history buff, this is an interesting reminder that social unrest wasn't invented in the 1960s, and the Red Summer of 1919 predated the long hot summer by nearly half a century. And for a reader, it's intriguing to find a story set in an era that's not as popular with writers as some others, but is nonetheless chock-full of dramatic narrative potential. "It was like they were all walking through this crazy world, trying to keep pace but knowing they couldn't, they just couldn't. So a part of them waited for that world to come back up behind them on a second try and just roll right over them, send them -- finally -- on into the next one."

As you might expect of a book that's (partly) a book about a union and a strike, social class and the difficulty of defining one's place in a rapidly-changing world are recurring themes. Some of the tension arises when World War I veterans return from defending American ideals against the old Europe, only to find that those ideals don't really apply to them after all:
"In the war, they'd died by the millions. For nothing but real estate. And now, in the streets of the world, the same battle continued. Today, Boston. Tomorrow, someplace else. The poor fighting the poor. As they'd always done. As they were encouraged to. And it would never change. He finally realized that. It would never change. He looked up at the black sky, at the salted splay of dots. That's all they were. That, and nothing more. And if there was a God inveigled behind them, then He had lied. He'd promised the meek they would inherit the earth. They wouldn't. They'd only inherit the small piece they fertilized."
Closer to home, Danny reaches a similar conclusion about his father's crusade against the leftists. As he confesses to his priest after shooting Federico:

"I can't shake the feeling ... The feeling that we -- me and the guy I shot? -- we're just living in the same barrel? See? ... There's this big barrel of s--t. See? And it's -- ... --- where the ruling class and all the Haves don't live, right? It's where they f-----g throw every consequence they don't want to think about. And the idea -- ... -- the idea is, Father? The idea is that we're supposed to play nice and go away when they're done with us. Accept what they give us and drink it and eat it and clap for it and say, 'Mmmm, more, please. Thanks.' And Father, I gotta tell you, I've about had my f-----g fill.'"

Lehane also underscores another ugly truth about human nature: In times of turmoil, we often define who and where we are by defining and demonizing who we are not. Most often, as Luther is well aware, it's black Americans who find themselves the victims of such scapegoating:
"'Can't win against that type. If they say the sky's green and get their buddies to agree with them, say it a few more times until they believe it, how you going to fight that? ... Sky's green from then on. ... World ain't changing," Luther said. "Ain't ever going to, neither. They tell you the sky's green until you finally say, 'Okay, the sky's green.'? Then they own the sky, Danny, and everything underneath it."
This awareness, however, doesn't stop Luther from turning around and demonizing the leftists when for once, it's their group and not his that's being blamed for Boston's troubles. "For a few, strangely joyous hours, Luther didn't feel like a colored man, didn't even feel there was such a thing as color, only one thing above all others: He was an American." Nor, as Thomas Coughlin's reaction to the post-strike riots demonstrates, does the need for a scapegoat fade after you've climbed a good way up the ladder:
"His people, the faces nearest him as Irish as potatoes and drunken sentiment, all twisted into repulsive, barbaric masks of rage and self-pity. As if they'd a right to do this. As if this country owed them anything more than it had handed Thomas when he stepped off the boat, which is to say nothing but a fresh chance. ... [T]hey came here, one of the few cities in the world where their kind was given a fair shake. But did they act like Americans? Did they act with respect or gratitude? No. They acted like what they were -- the n----rs of Europe. How dare they? When this was over, it would take Thomas and good Irishmen like him another decade to undo all the damage this mob had done in two days. Damn you all, he thought as they continued to push them back. Damn you all for smearing our race yet again."

Ultimately, the story ends on a fitting note: neither happy, nor bleak, nor wholly ambiguous. In some respects, tremendous changes have happened, and lives will never again be the same. In others, they haven't changed half as much as we or Lehane's characters might have expected. As Thomas muses, beside Connor's hospital bed after the riots, "Maybe this, of all things, was the true price of family -- being unable to stop the pains of those you loved. Unable to suck it out of the blood, the heart, the head. You held them and named them and fed them and made your plans for them, never fully realizing that the world was always out there, waiting to apply its teeth." The world is indeed still waiting, fangs bared, for Danny and Luther ... and I'm still waiting (minus the fangs) for my next crack at a Lehane book. Definitely a keeper.

Friday, May 8, 2009

#43 - Losing You

Ahh. Every now and then, a quickie is just what I need, and Nicci French's Losing You (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2008) fit the bill quite nicely. The characters are cardboard, the plot has more red herrings than a bin of Swedish fish, and it's fast-paced enough that I finished 293 pages in a single evening ... after our fantabulous dinner guests went home. (OK, I did read the first 40something pages at lunchtime.) If any among my (ahem) vast readership are looking for a fun early summer read and enjoy a good thriller, this one will do ya.

PSST! Check out the explosion in my Hazel's Bookshelf list. 3 guesses as to where I was this morning ...

All righty, then ... back as promised with the Real Review. Losing You opens on main character Nina Landry's 40th birthday, and truly, her life couldn't get much better. (OK, maybe she'd rather not have greeted her surprise party guests in a tatty old robe, but aside from that.) After a harrowing split from her ex, Rory, a year ago, and an ill-advised fling with then-but-no-longer-separated neighbor Joel, she's made a home for herself on Sanderling Island (supposedly 60 miles from London, though I couldn't figure out if it really exists or not). Once the ill-timed party is over, she and her 2 kids are off to the airport with her new sweetheart, Christian, for a long-awaited holiday in Florida.

The only fly in the ointment is that Nina's daughter, 15 year old Charlie (nee Charlotte), still hasn't returned from last night's sleepover ... even though she organized the party in the first place, and even though she still has to deliver her newspapers and pack before they leave. As the afternoon unfolds, Charlie's cell phone goes unanswered, and her friends seem clueless as to her whereabouts, Nina's annoyance turns to worry and then panic. Neither her neighbors nor the police seem overly concerned, insisting at first that Charlie's just being a flighty teenager, and later that she's run away on purpose ... but Nina doesn't believe it. She sets out to solve the mystery and find her daughter on her own, convinced that every second lost to the police officers' methodical investigation is putting Charlie in graver danger.

From there, the story proceeds more or less as you'd expect. Nina hunts down lots of leads, but most don't amount to much. She uncovers lots of surprising information about Charlie along the way, most of it fairly typical of the stuff teens tend to hide from their parents: a mysterious boyfriend, alcohol-fueled "hookup" parties, and so on. She steps on the police officers' toes more than once, and finds some friends and neighbors more helpful than others. Her 11 year old son Jackson becomes clingy and fearful ... understandably, as his sister's vanished and his mom keeps fobbing him off on any neighbor she can find as she runs hither and yon to track Charlie down. There's a whodunit you probably didn't suspect, and an ultimately happy ending.

While the basic storyline was interesting enough, the writing was a bit sloppy, which ended up making the plot less gripping. Maybe I just didn't read carefully enough, but the guilty party's identity seemed to come out of left field. Nina does come up with a motive, but it's not clear whether it's correct or just the product of an overactive, desperate imagination. Likewise, we never learn whether the police are really the bumblers Nina seems to think they are, or if they've been quietly closing in on the real solution all along. I'd also expected at least some of the leads Nina pursues to end up having something to do with what's really happened to Charlie. As far as I can tell, they don't ... so you're left feeling less like French steered you down a dark, circuitous road that eventually led to the culprit, and more like she couldn't make up her mind where to go in the first place, and headed off for one destination before abruptly deciding to turn around and go somewhere else instead. It was interesting to ponder how most of the "clues" Nina uncovered turned out not to be real clues after all, but just typical adolescent secrecy, but we never learn enough about Nina and Charlie's relationship for this to really resonate. The characterization was also a bit lacking, but that's almost to be expected in a book like this, so it seems nitpicky to complain about even for me.

In short, a decent weekend or airplane read, especially if you want something that doesn't require your full attention and won't haunt or distract you once you get where you're going. Wait for the paperback, though ... it's not one you'll bother coming back to, and for me, isn't worth the hardcover price or the bookshelf space to own.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

#42 - Kieron Smith, Boy

After finishing my Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman (Harcourt, 2008), I'm reminded of one of the famous lines from Thoreau's Walden: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." If the title character of Kelman's latest is any indication, the same can be said of the mass of boys, or at least those in an unremarkable Glasgow neighborhood some unspecified time in the not-too-distant past. The story is told in the first person from Kieron's perspective -- colloquialisms, bad grammar, and all. Guardian reviewer Michael Faber calls this voice "mercilessly authentic," and I agree; Kieron's frustrated, inarticulate fragments really do make other novels purportedly narrated by children seem false and glossy by comparison. Says Faber:

"Presumably, Kelman's point is that most boys' lives are not enlivened by dramatic adventures. There are no murders, no rescues, no life-changing encounters, no transcendent epiphanies: just the day-to-day tedium of ill-fitting socks, playground gossip, inconsequential squabbles. What saves underprivileged children from being crushed by their environment is the ability to transform the world with their own imaginative vision, but Kelman won't allow Kieron to overstep his linguistic limits, nor does he grant him much imagination."

Unfortunately, there's a downside to all this unremarkable authenticity; namely, it doesn't make for very interesting reading. The novel doesn't really have a plot, in the sense of a character with a problem that needs solving -- it just follows Kieron through a series of ordinary vignettes, from the time he's a wee lad of about 5 till he enters adolescence at 12 or 13. Aside from growing older, Kieron isn't really changed by the events of the book, nor does he provoke a change in the people or places around him. He resents his parents' blatant favoritism of his older brother, Matt. He slips off when he can to visit his grannie and granda, which becomes harder when his parents move to a new apartment or "scheme" in another part of the city. He gets into mid-level mischief with his pals (climbing ronepipes and walking about on the roof, "knocking" (stealing candy and "fags" (cigarettes)) from local shops, sneaking into football matches, and so on), and hopes his da doesn't catch and skelp (hit) him or give him a doing (beating). And so it goes. As Kieron would put it, "So that was you."

These everyday goings-on could be the stuff of a compelling portrait, if only we got to know the characters a bit better ... but we don't. Not only is Kieron's life utterly lacking in dramatic adventures or life-changing encounters, but so far as we know, it's wholly indistinguishable from those of his peers. He's not a scholar like his brother Matt, who seems to spend every waking moment swotting (studying) and insists on absolute quiet while he's doing it. He's a skilled climber. He's sullen and unimpressed when his parents insist on sending him to the posh school Matt attends, rather than the local one his friends attend. And that's about all the insight we're offered. Surely, even an unexceptional child has some personality traits that set him apart from others, and surely those closest to him would show some recognition and understanding of what those are ... but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

If there's a single theme to be teased out of the minutae of Kieron's unremarkable story, it's probably that no matter how caught up we might get in bettering ourselves and trying to present an impressive face to the world, it's all for naught; our fate is what it is, and all the posturing and pretending we do can't change it. Constant suspicion btween the Proddys (Protestants) and Papes (Catholics) is a given here, and Kieron sees no contradiction between having a few individual RC friends, but still not trusting them as a group. Recurring squabbles over whether Kieron's really a Catholic name, and whether our narrator's really a Protestant, bedevil him, to the extent of making him wonder if he was adopted:

"If really I was one. Maybe I was. I just did not know because they had not told me. My maw and my da got me as a Protestant and put me as a Protestant but all the time if I was not one, if I was a real Catholic. Kieron was for Catholics. People said it. I did not care. I would just do all the stuff. If it all was horrible. I did not care. Oh Kieron is a Pape's name. They said that. Oh, ye do not get Proddies called Kieron. So if it is Irish, you must be Irish. Oh you are a Pape. Well so I did not care."
To his mother's chagrin, his friends solve the name dilemma by dubbing him Smiddy ... but the autonomy this offers is fleeting, as these friends drift away when Kieron moves on to the good school, where there's no familiar sport to excel at, and no identity other than as Matt Smith's brother.

Eventually, Kieron does realize that what his name is and what his friends call him are unimportant. "So if really it was a Catholic name, if that is what he was saying, that was just daft and from being a child. People were all different names. In my school John and Michael and Jim and Brian were Catholics and Protestants, even a Joseph was a Protestant." Likewise, while watching a boxing match on TV, Matt becomes bold enough to confront the ridiculous nature of their father's bigotry: "I am just saying what if the white man is a Catholic? What if it is him and a darkie fighting together? ... Who would you want to win? ... Would ye want somebody to win? Do you want it to be a draw so they both lose?"

In the end, the resolution to both conflicts is unsatisfying. While we'd like to believe Kieron and Matt will grow up to be more tolerant than their parents and friends, we have no real reason to expect it, and in fact, it seems more likely that they'll just outgrown these naive bursts of insight. Much as we see when Kieron's father caught him climbing the ronepipe again and gave him the worst doing ever, this is not a place that looks kindly on those who try to climb too high or venture too far afield.

One arena where we see repeated skirmishes over identity and self-definition is that of language. Kieron's story is told the same way he speaks: in a thick, working-class Glaswegian dialect. We're told repeatedly that his mother and teachers don't approve: "You not yous, you not ye. Head, not heid. Dead not deid, instead not insteid. And not isnay and wasnay and doesnay. When I said doesnay my da said, Walt Doesnay, you do not." His beloved granda, however, doesn't seem to mind. "That was how my granda talked, wummin and didnay, um nay and will nay, he did not care. My maw said that, Oh do not talk like yer grandfather. Yes but he was not a snob." As a reader, I'll admit that I found Kieron's grammar and dialect distracting, although I did manage to figure out most of the words ... but then I wonder about what sort of language would make me comfortable, and how arrogant it is to expect Kieron or Kelman to sanitize his story for my convenience. Likewise, Kieron's puzzlement over proper language, bad words, and swearing -- he refuses to swear, though not consistently, and blue language of varying strengths is bleeped out throughout the text, e.g., "s***e," "b****y" -- is as annoying and confusing for the reader as it must be for the protagonist:

"People did not say f****d in my house. It was a bad word. But not a swear word. Bad words were not as bad as swear words but quite like it. Gary McNab thought f****e was a swear word. In his house they said pumped, his big brother too. Other ones said pumped. But that was a funny one because if it was a lassie, if a lassie got p****d, so it was swear word. Oh he p****d her, that was swearing.

"But if it was a smell, Oh he pumped, then it was not, it was just bad, but not too bad and ye could say it.

"... Ye got rude words as well. Some rude words were bad words. But some were not. ... There was some bad words I could say. T***e and k***h, b*m, d****e and c**k. But I never said them. The same with f****d. Out the house people said f****d but I did not. I just did not.

"There were other bad words I did not say even out the house. S***e, a**s, p***k and f***y."

Ultimately, Kieron concludes that what he's called, how he speaks, and who he thinks he is don't really make a difference:
"If it was yer Fate to go to Hell how did ye know? Maybe it came into yer head. God put it there. He said yer Fate so ye knew it without thinking. It was inside ye but ye never knew till after ye were dead. Ye woke up and ye were in Hell. Who could ye say it to? Oh here ye are. But ye were, and ye just looked about.

"But it was not fair. What if ye led a good life and did good deeds? How come it was Hell? It would be a big surprise. Except ye were a sinner.

"Everybody was a sinner. Ye went to hell because of it. So how come everybody did not go? Because it was no their Fate. Some people had bad Fates. Tough luck for them, they done good deeds but still went to Hell. They could not make up for it. Even if they done all good deeds, that was them.

"Other ones done evil deeds, so if they just got away with it. The Registration teacher talked about it. God's way is a mystery to us. If we could but fathom it but we are puny beings."
This was definitely a book that's better after the fact, when you mull it over for a while, than it was in the initial reading. Whether or not Kelman intended this, he offers some interesting if bleak ideas, without wrapping them in a tidy package or handing them over on grandma's china. My chief gripe, though, is that it took an awful lot of slogging to get there, and the plot and characters were nowhere near as compelling. Perhaps Kieron's supposed to be a generic Everyboy, but still ... after 400 pages, I'd like to care what becomes of him specifically more than I found myself doing.

Next up, probably pretty soon: Losing You, by Nicci French ... a parent's worst nightmare thriller that should be a welcome antidote to the grey tedium of Kieron. Just the thing for Mother's Day -- stay tuned.

Friday, May 1, 2009

#41 - Melting Stones

Hot on the heels of #40, Queen of Babble in the Big City, was #41 - Melting Stones, by Tamora Pierce (2008, Scholastic Press). This was my (technically our, as I read it with Littlehazel) first foray into the works of this popular and prolific YA fantasy author, and I have to say, we were both pretty impressed.

The story opens with Evvy -- Evumeimei Dingzai, a young stone mage established Pierce fans may recognize from Street Magic -- enroute to the Battle Islands with her mentor, prickly plant mage Rosethorn, to investigate the mysterious deaths of the local plants and animals. They are accompanied by the noisome but ultimately useful Myrrhtide (a/k/a Fusspot), a water mage, and Luvo, the heart of a mountain (read: talking rock that looks like a teddy bear) who is Evvy's familiar. Surprisingly, Evvy discovers the cause of the mysterious dying-off in fairly short order, but what to do about it and how to save the people and animals of Starns is another matter.

While the other reviews I read for this book were mixed, both Littlehazel and I enjoyed it. It did take me awhile to fully get into the characters and their universe; this is consistent with other readers' suggestion that Melting Stones is more accessible to those who are already Pierce fans, and may even have read others in the Circle of Magic universe ... as opposed to someone like me, who's not usually a big fantasy reader. I also found many of the detailed descriptions of stones and geology a bit tedious, though young science fiends (including the one I gave birth to) may well eat it up. That said, the book has a lot to recommend it. It's an interesting, unusual story, and Pierce manages to make the characters learn and grow and change over the course of the book without being preachy and heavy-handed about it. There's also a good deal here for tween and teen readers to chew on: the environmental and emotional aftermath of war, responsibility to oneself vs. one's friends vs. the collective good, balancing courage and caution. Additionally, I appreciated the subtle diversity of the cast; it's not overemphasized, but their names and descriptions paint a picture of a very varied community, they don't appear to be limited or stereotyped based on gender, and there's no gratuitous romance thrown in to tie the ending together neatly. (Don't get me wrong, I love me my chick lit sometimes, but I'd hate for my 9 year old to get the idea that the only things to look forward to as she grows up are boyfriends and designer clothes.)

In short, a decent read, either to read with your tween or give as a gift. If this isn't one of Pierce's better works, I think Littlehazel's in for a treat.