January 4, 2013 @ 8:32 pm | Filed under: Books
This time of year, my book gluttony swells to impossible dimensions—everyone sharing their last year’s reading lists, all the Best Of lists floating around. Stop looking, I tell myself: stop until you’ve finished even half, even a tenth of the books you’ve already got queued in the TBR stacks. It’s no use my vowing to acquire no new books until I’ve read all (or a tenth) of the ones I have waiting here in these crowded quarters—I’m too greedy, too eager to read them all, all, all.
Books make billionaires of all of us—such a wealth of stories left to read; we’re all rich in this way, even the most dogged bookworms. There are always millions of stories left to read. We’ll never spend all this splendid capital, none of us.
When I make lists of the books I Absolutely Intend to Read in the Near Future, I never do. Not until years later when I’ve drawn up Yet Another List full of entirely different titles. So I won’t make a list right now, despite the persistent urge to do exactly that. This year I’m reading with complete abandon, no plan, no agenda, no sense of obligation. I’ve got at least half a dozen books going this very minute. And that’s not counting read-alouds (and read-alongs) I’ve got in the works, or planned, with kids.
I enjoy writing about books I’m in the thick of more than writing about them after I’ve finished. By then I’m on to the next tome, and that’s where my thoughts are. I had heaps of things to say about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie last month, five pages in, but when I’d finished, I wanted to sit quietly with it for a bit. Scott got on earful on our walk that first morning—how amused/amazed I was at Muriel Spark’s skill, her curious repetitions of phrase in describing the girls of Miss Brodie’s set: Rose, who was famous for sex; Sandy with her little eyes. In anyone less masterful, this intrusive technique would have been annoying at best, groanworthy at worst, but Spark’s control of language is exquisite and precise. I tried to explain to Scott how manipulated I felt, not in a negative sense (though that word nearly always carries a negative connotation) but in the sense of being subtly directed to form certain impressions of the characters, as an accomplished rider might invisibly direct a horse with gentle pressures and nudges. And there’s Miss Brodie nudging and directing her girls, shaping their minds toward her preferred vision—Spark’s structure is brilliant; “She’s Miss-Brodying me!” I told Scott. And then gradually, gradually, you’re allowed to step back and think your own thoughts, alongside mutinous, insightful Sandy with her little eyes. I know Sandy is insightful because Miss Brodie said so. Oh, Muriel Spark, you wicked genius you. Please manipulate the world in such a way that I might have a week alone with your body of work, won’t you?
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. What a peculiar book. I mean that in the best way. Maud Newton’s enthusiasm for this novel spurred me to read it. An assortment of elderly folks are being disturbed by anonymous phone calls—the caller’s voice varies—addressing them by name and saying “Remember you must die.” The narrative has a kind of deceptively Agatha Christie flavor, but it’s quite rich literary fiction, not pulp; and you’re never quite sure if you’re reading a mystery or a meditation. I loved that about it. The characters are so finely drawn I felt as if they were people I knew, which sounds like a book-review cliche but it’s one of those observations that is widely used because it matters, and when an author manages this feat, it’s an accomplishment worth noting. But really the only thing familiar about these people is that they’re so specific and unpigeonholeable. Real people never do fit perfectly into literary archetypes; we’re too inconsistent and layered. Spark’s characters are like that.
Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton, illustrated by the great Tom Lichtenheld. There’s a genre jump for you! This is a picture book—a perfect picture book, I tweeted the day I read it. “A perfect marriage of art and text” is another reviewer’s cliche but by golly it’s no overstatement in this case. Two little boys run for a toybox and brandish their selections in triumph and challenge. Shark vs. train—who wins? It depends…what’s the competition? Pie-eating? Diving? Marshmallow roasting? The stakes keep escalating, to hilarious effect. Rilla and Wonderboy sit and pore over the art, which is sharp and comic and enchanting. I find myself wishing my nephews and nieces hadn’t all grown up so much: this would be my birthday book of choice this year.
A Long Walk to Water by Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park. I received an advance review copy of this middle-grade novel—a digital galley, actually, the first review copy I’ve read on my Kindle. It’s a book I’ll be passing on to my 9-and-up kids. The narrative weaves back and forth between the tragic (and true) struggles of a Sudanese boy, Salva, separated from his family in 1985 and, like so many of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” cast into a dangerous landscape in search of asylum, and a contemporary (2008) Sudanese girl, Nya, who spends her entire day making a long trek to a muddy, bacteria-ridden pond to fetch water for her family. I won’t give away how the two narratives intersect. It’s a true story, deftly told, and it’s a story—a real and present hardship—I want my children to know about.
Similarly, Mitali Perkins’s new novel, Bamboo People, both moved and edified me, and I handed it to Jane the moment I finished. Before this book, I had only the haziest understanding of what’s going on in Burma: teenage boys being conscripted into military service, forced into the jungle to hunt down ethnic minorities they are taught to hate and fear. This novel, too, is told by two voices: there is studious 15-year-old Chiko, horrified to find himself torn away from his home and thrust into a military training camp, and young Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose village has been destroyed by the Burmese government and who longs to join his father in the fight for freedom and revenge. When their paths intersect, the tension ratchets higher. What I love about Mitali Perkins’s writing is that she draws her characters with such tenderness and blunt honesty. These boys are in an ugly situation and both fervently want to do the right thing, but in these horrific circumstances the “right thing” isn’t always easy to define.