Sunday, May 22, 2005

BOOKS: On Childhood and Immorality

Er, I've just managed to get young Master Sam to sleep, and my writing time is precious, so let's all pretend that I've written an incredibly witty, thought-provoking introduction to this entry. Are we all on board? Yay!

Feed My Dear Dogs by Emma Richler (#18)
One of the perks of being married to a fancypants TV producer guy is that he brings home review copies of books sent in by publishers. Most of these suck, but every so often a gem like Feed My Dear Dogs lands in my lap, all the more awesome because after reading the first few pages, I didn't know if I'd be able to finish it.

Don't get me wrong; the first few pages were as beautifully written as you could wish for. But there's a crazy density -- combined with a loopy, lyrical quality -- to Richler's prose that had me reeling until I got my sea legs. After that it was clear sailing.

The loopy narrative is the voice of Jem Weiss, middle child of five of the precocious Weiss family (no relation to the author's own non-fictional clan, Richler clarifies).

"I never really grasped why it was at all necessary to leave our house now and then and go to other houses, to play with other kids..." So begins this story that takes us inside the magical world of the Weiss family, as Jem paints scene after (mostly unconnected) scene of a seemingly idyllic childhood spent in a large family of precocious children, a larger-than-life father, and a gentle, beautiful mother.

But as Jem's intense love for her family reveals itself, you get an increasing feeling of dread. Everything's too perfect, you think. But I'm getting into spoiler territory, so I'll back off now. Suffice to say that I found this novel beautiful and funny and touching... in a non-Oprah kind of way. But I'm one of those people who has way romanticized their own childhood, and I only recently learned that puts me in the minority.

There's more meandering than linear storytelling in this book, but the net effect is rather like spending a cozy evening sharing treasured family stories. Questioning the dearth of plot would just make you look like a petty jerk.

By the way, in case you're wondering, author Emma Richler is daughter to Mordecai Richler, sister to Daniel. There's some serious talent in that family. (For proof, check out Daniel's 1992 novel Kicking Tomorrow. I have no idea why the dude doesn't write more fiction.)

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (#19)
I hadn't read Vanity Fair in about 15 years, but I was inspired to revisit it after Exxie posted about it on her site. I'd forgotten how good it is. And how accessible. Did I already say how good it is?

It's also renewed my ire at Mira Nair and her movie adaptation of the book. Plus, I know Reese Witherspoon is America's sweetheart and all, but she said some dumbass shit about Becky Sharp being a feminist hero that needs to be corrected:
In my opinion, Becky Sharp is an early feminist. She is really a very modern character. She'd been deprived of parents and has no place to go in the world - yet she still manages to succeed. Every success she has in her life is based on her own merit, which is a modern idea for a period story.

I think she absolutely has a heart, even in an environment where people care very little about other people, a society of buying and selling people. You can buy your way into society and then fall from grace because you lose money. In a world that's so hard to negotiate, she does a fantastic job of managing. She figures out how to negotiate her way through society.
Whuh? Did we read the same book?

First off, let's get this straight, and pay attention, because I'm only going to say this once:

Becky Sharp is NOT a hero, dammit.

Thackeray goes out of his way to make it clear that
Vanity Fair is a "book without a hero." You're not expected to be in any of the characters' cheering squad. The subversive thing about the book is how Thackeray tempts you to like Becky by making her clever, charming and witty... especially appealing compared to the tepid, dull and downright stupid cast of characters.

(Remember, the book is called "Vanity Fair" -- a place peopled with weak, stupid and/or corrupt, immoral characters -- and Thackeray repeatedly reminds of this in narrative asides, keeping us mindful of the fact that everyone in it is suspect.)

As far as being a "feminist" hero... well, my definition of feminism is pretty broad and inclusive: a feminist is someone who believes in the right of women to exercise a full array of choices. But all Becky chooses to do is steal her friend's boyfriend, mess around on her husband, and neglect her child. I don't see how these are feminist choices. Someone disabuse me if I'm wrong.

Now that I've scared almost all of you away with my rigidly moralistic streak, is it too late to mention that I find this book incredibly entertaining? I do! It's funny! Pick it up! I'd even go so far as calling it a good beach read... if I were the kind of person who recommends beach reads.


I can't believe I wrote this entire post without the baby waking up. I am the best mom ever. And I'm almost caught up on my backlog! Let me see... only... oh, crap... only six more books to post about. Oy.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

ETC: Give. You know you want to.

If you visit my site, then chances are good you're in the same glamorous, elite circle that frequents Pamie's fabulous site, So maybe you already know about her annual book drive, but it's such an excellent cause it bears pimping in as many places as possible.
I'm proud to announce we're sponsoring the villages of the Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu that have suffered from the effects of the Tsunami.

There are about 2400 children in fourteen villages who need help with books, school bags and uniforms.

The cost of one educational kit, sending one child back to school with everything he or she needs is 200 Rupees. At the current exchange rate, that is $4.61 USD. That's $5.76 Canadian. 2.47 UK pounds.

Your donation is 100% tax deductible in the US, as well as a few other countries.
Go to the book drive page for full details. To make your donation, scroll down to the bottom of the page and hit the "Donate" button. Even a donation of five or six bucks can make a difference for one kid.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

BOOKS: The Heckoning: The Time of Reckoning, part deux

They say that, as labour approaches, knocked-up chicks feel an urge to "nest": cleaning, cooking, and otherwise preparing our domiciles for our precioussssss bundles of joy.

I did not experience this.

Not that I was expecting to, because it'll take a more powerful force than mere hormones to fire up the likes of
me with the desire to cook and clean. But in the last month of my pregnancy, I did read up the proverbial storm, and if that was hormonally induced, then I say "Bring on more hormones!"

Without further ado (oh hell, maybe a
little further ado), here are some of the most recent books I've finished. And I must say, they've been winners. You could do much worse than pick up any of these titles:

by Sarah Waters (#15)
It is difficult to understand how any one could find this perversion entertaining... Total Perversion. Don't let the kids watch it.
~ customer review
Sweet! Another reviewer described it as "lesbian Victoriana". Whee! If that isn't enough to make you rush out and get your hands on this novel, it also came highly recommended by several people whose opinions I respect. I liked it, too.

Fingersmith is actually two stories: Sue Trinder is an orphan raised on the hearth of the thieving community of London. Maud Lilly, also an orphan, is a sheltered naif raised in Nowheresville, England. Their paths -- and narratives -- cross when Sue is recruited by a gentleman con artist (who goes by the handle "Gentleman", natch) to dupe Maud out of her fortune. And then the plot goes sideways and gets all twisty.

You can't throw a rock on the internet without reading about Waters's indebtedness to
Charles Dickens, and I see the basis for the comparison, but this novel could only have been written now. While it has all the plot convolutions of a novel by Dickens or Wilkie Collins, its social critique takes direct aim at the status and sexuality of women. At times, the melodrama got a bit too heavyhanded for me, but that didn't stop me from being utterly glued to the novel for the last hundred or so pages.

So in a nutshell: Dickensian, perverse, melodramatic, lesbian Victoriana. With a social message.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (#16)
I like to tell people that novels written in the first person by characters with mental disabilities (handicaps? Different abilities? My lexicon is out of date) should be a recognized genre. But then when the people I say this to ask me to cite examples, I can only name two: this one and
Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.

I actually read
The Curious Incident when it first came out. But then I lost it for several months, believing that I'd loaned it out and forgetting to whom and secretly cursing all my friends. And then I got all obsessed with it, which made me want to re-read it, of course, leading me to curse my friends even more.

And then I, er, found it amidst a stack of books while doing a mini purge of my book collection (and that's a long story for another day). And then I re-read it in an evening. I even got Acquilad to read it (and you know how he is) through a simple tactic called emotional blackmail; I told him that if he didn't love this book, he couldn't claim to know me, since I am, in fact, soul sister to the main character, Christopher, a 15-year-old autistic boy.

Just a few of the things Christopher and I have in common:
  • we both love dogs, rats and orangutans
  • we like math
  • we hate crowds
  • we hate loud noises
  • we like schedules
  • we can concentrate on things for very long periods of time
  • we like to make lists
I can't recommend this book strongly enough. It's sort of Secret Diary of Adrian Mole meets Sherlock Holmes. Even Acquilad loved it, and I'm here to tell you that if Acquilad and I agree on a book, it must be great and you should run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (#17)
Interestingly, I picked this up after reading
A Curious Incident, and there are some nifty parallels between the two books. While the latter is a coming-of-age story narrated by a teenaged autistic boy in England, A Complicated Kindness is a coming-of-age story narrated by a teenaged Mennonite girl in Manitoba.

Going to university in southern Ontario, I became good friends with several Mennonites. Not regular Mennos, though. These guys drank, danced, and drove cars... hence their self-imposed label: "the wayward Mennonites". They were (and are) a charming, smart, well-adjusted bunch who are a rare combination of good fun and extremely moral. But something that never occurred to me during my friendship with these guys was just that: they were all guys.

I've never been close to a Menno girl (or
woman, if you must), and Toews's novel gave me a glimmering of understanding of just how shitty it can be to be a wayward female Mennonite. As charming and personable as my wayward Menno boys were, I'm now coming to realize that the male-dominated hierarchy in which they were raised permitted these so-called excesses with the catch-all excuse that "boys will be boys". I can only imagine how hard it must be for a sensitive, rebellious, intelligent, adventurous young woman to be true to herself in this environment.

This is the situation in which Nomi, the main character of
A Complicated Kindness, finds herself. Smart, rebellious and funny, she's trapped in a small town, tied to her well-meaning but weak-willed father by love and guilt after they're abandoned by Nomi's mother and sister.

I liked this book much more than I expected to. I expected it to make obvious, heavyhanded, anti-religious statements, but in fact it's much more subtle and sensitive than that, while at the same time being extremely honest, unpretentious and, believe it or not, funny. I strongly recommend it.

Whew. That's all for today, kids. Enough about me. What are you reading these days?