Several books in this issues point to a trend: writers seem to be losing the magic in their work. Is it age, too much writing, or the unbelievably cartoonish reality of the times? Whatever, the magic is gone from a lot of writing at the moment.
* Magical Realism can’t keep up with the zeitgeist. *
Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman (2017)
This is a (pr)equel (that’s Pullman’s term) to the His Dark Materials books. La Bell Sauvage describes how the young Lrya came to be at Jordan College Oxford. This book lacks the surprising grandeur of the Golden Compass but will that ever be topped? If you’re willing to set your sights little lower, then you’re in for enjoyable ride down the flooded, muddy, treacherous Thames river.
LBS is set up in a small village on the Thames above Oxford were we meet Malcolm a mild-mannered, curious child who lives and works in his parents pub. Malcolm meets the infant Lrya while running errands for the sisters at the Godstow nunnery. Known for his curiosity and frankly a bit of a busybody, Malcolm is recruited by an Oxford scholar who is studying the aleithemeter and who works with a secret organization that opposes the Magesterium to use his friendship with the sisters to keep an eye on the coming and goings near Lyra. As things develop the Magestrium, in light of a mysterious prophecy, wants to take control of the infant Lyra.
Just as the Magersterium gets Lyra in to their clutches, a flood of possibly supernatural origin occurs and Malcolm and Alice (the pot washer at his parents pub) by happenstance find themselves racing down the flooded river in Malcom’s little boat (the Belle Sauvage of the title) with the baby Lyra. There’s thrills and spills and fairies and the scariest villain so far with a hideous maimed hyena daemon.
There were parts of the end of the book that left me literally breathless and made me seriously reconsider what I was reading at bedtime. There were images that I didn’t just need in my brain as I was drifting off to sleep. But I persisted as do Malcolm and Alice and in the end Lyra is safety delivered to Jordan College.
The main characters Malcolm and Alice are comfortable drawn children/teenagers. One thing that did confuse me a bit was the age gap between Malcolm and Alice. At the beginning of the book Malcolm is presented as 12(ish) and Alice as 16. That’s a big gap for kids. Given the age difference, some the later material borders on creepy as they interact.
In the end while it’s a nice book and had some lovely light moments and some real moments of terror. It’s very prequel and the ending is only satisfying because I know how things work out in later books.
* Lyra as MacGuffin *
Practical Magic — Alice Hoffman (2003)
What happens when your sister shows up with a dead body in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car? You help her bury it in the back yard of course. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I would do. And that’s what Sally Owen does when her sister Gillam shows up with the very dead Jimmy.
The main characters are the Owens sisters Sally and Gillian. Daughters of the witchy Owens family, as children they were alternately shunned and tormented by their classmates. Once old enough they both run as far as they could from the legacy of their mothers, grandmother, and aunties. Sally and Gillian are a bit predictable as the good sister who settles down and strives for normalcy and the bad sister who runs around and has lousy taste in men. Though this predictability leads to the fun of watching solid, stable, desperately normal Sally completely lose her ability to control her world when a certain investigator from Arizona appears looking for Jimmy the backyard denizen.
The characters of the Sally’s two daughters are much more realistic than most portrayals of teenagers as secondary characters. This makes me happy. The ending isn’t as scary as I had hoped it would be.
* Do I remember the movie correctly? Wasn’t Jimmy a zombie in the movie? *
The Refrigerator Monologues — Catherine M. Valente (2017)
Valente takes Gail Simone’s 1999 exploration of the misogyny of the world of comic books and super heroes and builds her own world around it. Simone pointed out that the female characters in most (nearly all) of the world of comics and super heroes are mere plot points, facilitators for the story arc of the male super heroes. This book is a collection of self-narrated stories of these “refrigerated” females. In Valente’s book each of the members of the Hell Hath No club tells her story. There is the plucky heroine who discovers (accidentally of course) the secret formula that transforms the hero from a everyman to a superman and then gets herself killed by the villain looking for the formula for his own uses. The girl whose child is killed so that the hero can shout “for the death of my son” every time he goes onto battle with the villain who killed his son. The girl is of course forgotten as soon as the child is ripped from her arms.
There are the female (semi)villains. A couple of girls who serve as keys — literally — they mostly let/get the real male villains out of some sort of confinement. And the super girl whose fabulous power out strips the guys but who lacks control, turns to evil, and must be destroyed for the greater good. The subtext being that, of course, a male would be able to control these powers but being a girl she can’t.
Each of the tellers of these stories is disguised version of a female character in the world of comics and superheroes. It can be a bit of a party game to name them all.
The stories have Valente’s usual facility with language and the point is well made.
(Though am I the only one who misses her less commercial forays — those brilliant mythopoeic constructions that made up Palimpsest and the Orphans Tales?)
* an Alexander DeWitt festschrift *
In the Midst of Winter — Isabel Allende (2017)
Every year on January 8th Allende starts a new book. One recent year she was a bit behind in coming up with an idea for a book and so she and her family brainstormed the ideas that would become this book. It’s got a bit of the feel of a TV show with individual episodes with the life stories of the characters hanging on the loose overarching plot line of the discovery of a dead woman in the trunk of a “borrowed” car during a NYC blizzard.
There are three characters — Richard Bowman, a stultified 60-something professor, the vivacious older Chilean college instructor, Lucia Maraz, who is living in his basement apartment, and Evelyn Ortega an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. When Bowman runs into the back of Ortega’s employer’s Lexus during a blizzard, the three characters are thrown together and a caper begins. Each character’s back story is effecting and provides a glimpse into the immigrant or ex-pat experience from a very different perspective.
The Guatemalan girl — as effecting as her personal story is — is just the mute donkey that carries the two older protagonists towards each other as the story winds down to its inevitable conclusion the old folks fall in love at long last.
* you never know what you’re gong to find in the trunk *
Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry, 2nd Ed. — Rhian Willimas (2013)
One of the better poetry text books. This is all the stuff about poetry that you need to know to write that essay your instructor asked for. It includes a wider selection of poetry examples than many of its sort.
I still can’t manage the bullshit level necessary for “close reading” in the academic sense. Too much imputing intention to poets for every little thing that the reader can find in a poem. Don’t get me started on how many close readings straitjacket a poem into the reader’s pet set of literary theories.
Still. If you need a backup text to make the one you’ve been assigned this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s hella cheaper than Fussel and lacks some of his more objectionable attitudes.
* logically organized and not too painful *
Rag Pickers Guide to Poetry — eds: Eleanor Wilner and Maurice Manning (2013)
A collection of small essays and samples of poetry from folks who have taught at the Warren Wilson MFA program. Most of these essays consist of: here’s a poem or three and here’s what I think about my own work without proposing a larger idea. There are a handful of good essays here. Among the more worthwhile essays — Chris Forhan suggests removing words like because and although from your vocabulary and seeing where the more declarative and definitive take you. Rick Bardot has interesting ideas on stepping away from the visual. And finally there is this lovely quote from Heather McHugh which I am taking entirely out of context:
“The poem engages in a sort of network’s pleasure, making its cat’s cradle, using the oddest threads it could find, in the spool-rooms or yammer and yarn.”
It is, I think, the truest thing I have read about poetry in quite a while.
* poets talking to themselves about themselves *
The Cuckoo — Peter Streckfus (2004)
One of the poets that I discovered via the Lousie Gluck introductions in her American Originality. These poems are chewy and thick and not at all sweet. There are strands drawn from several traditions, including Chinese legend and the Old West. All woven cunningly into narratives that almost make sense and leave you wondering how you can put in the few missing pieces.
* poems that invite your imagination in.
Innocents Abroad: Or the New Pilgrim’s Progress — Mark Twain, Narrated by: Grover Gardner (2011)
Classic Twain — long, detailed, and alternately broadly and slyly funny. Twain’s reports from a 6 month round trip voyage from New York to the Levant. It’s Twain. It’s a classic and many of the attitudes that Twain makes fun of still grate on the soul.
The narration is pitch perfect. The very slight drawl that one associates with Twain’s diction is here. And the thing is read “straight” which makes the satire all that much sharper. There is no winking at the listener on the part of the reader. At least no winks that aren’t in Twain’s original. Good job.
* really, real trip recounted in seriously unreal episodes *
Heartburn — Norah Ephron Narrator: Meryl Streep (2013)
An oldie that stands up well enough other that a couple of anachronisms. ($50 shuttle flights between NYC and DC.) It’s kind of light and has a lovely bitter bite to it. The ending is happily ambiguous. Meryl Streep is the perfect narrator. Her slight accent (from where I’ve never figured out) lends just the right upper class touch to the story. Streep can do bitchy like no one’s business and she applies that perfectly- just a hint in the story of marriage gone comically wrong. Nothing deep here. Just the banal things of marriage and betrayal and cooking. I like having Meryl Streep read to me and I wondered what else she’s read. Answer: a lot of children’s book including Beatrix Potter.
* the recipes aren’t all that, but who reads fiction for the recipes? *
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood — Trevor Noah narrated by the author (2016)
The stories are effecting and sometimes very funny. The author is after all a comedian. There is no self-pity and no self-aggrandizement. Just the honest stories of one boy/young man growing up in a particular historic time and place. I laughed a lot in that knowing way that lives somewhere between funny and poignant.
Aside from all the rest, (and you can look up any number of deservedly glowing reviews elsewhere) Noah’s take on tribalism and how tribe, race, and language are used to manipulate the emotions and actions of people who is rooted in the workings a complex society formed around many literal tribes. This book gave me much to think about with regards to our own country and it’s issues of race and class.
* maybe I should start watching late night television *