Saturday, August 26, 2006

Young adult this and that

There's a quote in the NYTBR this Sunday from Gary Paulsen a very popular young adult writer saying he would never write for adults because they are essentially beyond the point where they could be moved and changed by literature. All that, he says, happens when you're young. Now to some extent, I think he's right (after all, just yesterday I wrote here that my favorite film is The Black Stallion--a movie I saw as a kid, of a book I read as a kid). It was as a kid that I decided I wanted to write, and it was as a kid that I read Harriet the Spy, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Borrowers, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, every Judy Blume book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...all books that established one of the deciding precepts of my life: the imagination matters. They are also books that got me excited about reading, developed my empathy, and probably socialized me. And I have even had the thought that if I really wanted to affect a reader I should write for kids (my first job was working at a children's book publisher); and one day I'd like to write a book for kids. But... But... surely all hope is not lost for adults.

In Florida we have The Big Read, one of those NEA programs to try to fight the decline in reading. Our program, like the One Book One City programs is a fine idea; I'm all for it. But the books chosen are all books commonly read in high school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Farenheit 451..) and the programs seem to be aimed at high school students. I assume this has something to do with the statistic that the biggest drop in readers was in the young adult range, but it seems to me either all the progam intends to do is to get parents to read the books their kids are reading or it plans to reteach what's already being taught. I think we need something more like the Netflix system--where recommendations are made based on your preferences--so that readers will find a wider net of books they can enjoy. And adults should be encouraged to read books of a complexity and sophistication that CAN move them. Maybe they're not being moved because they're reading books (see my entries on Prep, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) that lack the complexities of adult reasoning (there is such a thing, right?).

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark

Occasionally I have epiphanies about my personal taste--like I've long known that I'm a sucker for sports movies as well as movies with cute little dark-haired boys in them, which explains my favorite film (The Black Stallion)--and after reading this novel, I realized I love Big House books. As in, books set in big houses. The Secret Garden, George Colt's nonfiction book appropriately titled The Big House, The English Patient, Delta Wedding, The Remains of the Day ... I think maybe I like the way a house can put characters into each other's lives so that strange intersections occur and relationships shift. This could certainly happen in a small house, even more so I suspect, but I'm still a sucker for the big houses (probably from early readings of Big House Brit Lit).

Anyway, The Hills at Home is about a big family of various ages that all come home to stay in their big former house, which normally only has one old lady in it, and some degree of hijinks ensue. But mostly nothing happens or very small things happen, and this is a very long book. And yet I found it lovely. I think because the setting was so well done and line by line it was so clever. I actually felt like it should be a tv show (I also had this reaction to the movie The Royal Tennenbaums) because it had all the components of a good narrative but no arc. So the place and the people could be visited over and over for a variety of stories.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

One of the choices a writer has to make is what to reveal when, and one of the pleasant surprises of this well-written, very popular novel is the choice Sebold makes. The novel is narrated by Susie, a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered by a serial killer and is now in heaven. This allows Sebold to escape all the normal limitations of first person since her narrator is omniscient, able to see all and to enter into the thoughts of other characters. What is interesting to me is that there is a lot of tension to the novel despite the fact that the reader knows everything about the murder, including who did it. Not only do we know, but a number of other characters in the novel also know (or are convinced they do). This is one of the ways Sebold reminds readers that she isn't writing a mystery. But she keeps up the tension of a mystery by having the murderer essentially get away with it--everybody knows he's guilty except for the police who have no evidence. So there's the tension of having a murderer walking around for the first half of the novel. Then he skips town and everyone, including the police, knows he did it, but he's still walking around (just somewhere else) and our omniscient narrator can (and occasionally does) follow him. But while the novel contains a lot of tension (including the graphic rape scene and one scary scene in the murderer's house), it's not driven by tension. It's driven by character and emotion (sad sad sad emotion). And that fact--that it's a character novel more than a plot novel--is cued by revealing everything up front.

I can see why the novel was such a success--it's literary in its language and dark in its concept but from the beginning feels like a survivor's tale--it's uplifting, hopeful. This is a novel where heaven exists and girls who are raped and murdered get to go there and watch their families and tell their stories. So our narrator loses her body but not her mind. She's a sad narrator and it's a story with a lot of real emotional weight, but to some extent the reader is let off the hook because characters go on to that better place where even their dead dogs join them. Compare that to a novel like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye where a little girl is raped by her father and loses her mind but not her body. What happens to Pecola seems much much worse that what happens to Susie. And ultimately The Bluest Eye feels like a more important book, but one that the general public seemingly would prefer to shy away from (even though it too is a survivor's tale; it's just that one girl survives and the other doesn't) because it's so "heavy." Which is not to say The Bluest Eye hasn't done well--obviously it has--but more because of Morrison's acclaim and because academics teach it then because it was embraced by the widest public.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Winkie by Clifford Chase

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but with this novel, the title, the cover (a one-eyed teddy bear in an interrogation room) and the endpapers (mugshots of the one-eyed teddy bear) made me pretty sure I'd like it. And I did, though it wasn't what I expected. The novel is the story of Winkie, a transgender teddy bear who can walk and talk and who is arrested and tried for the crimes of a Unabomber-esque terrorist (who actually kidnapped Winkie's baby). The summary and every review I read of the novel suggested it would be hilariously funny. But in reality it's tremendously sad. The concept is funny, the book is a satire, in certain ways, of our current American administration, but the parts that are most effective and that dominate the book are the interior thoughts of Winkie, who is really a representation of the saddest, loneliest child ever to exist in literature. I had lots more to say about the writing but I took too long between reading it and writing it up and I've forgotten it all, so you'll have to figure it out for yourself.

One interesting side note, one of the jacket blurbs is from Stephin Merrit, the central force of the band The Magnetic Fields. This is the first blurb I've seen from a non-writer, non-reviewer, and it's symbolic of the desire to market this book to a group of consumers (hipsters, presumably), rather than to particular readers. It's probably a sensible way for publishers to go... if Nike can be a part of your identity, if your favorite band can be, why not your favorite character? Merritt's quote is actually about considering a Winkie tattoo, which fits right in with the idea of branding fiction. Winkie, btw, has a blog and a MySpace page.

Everyone's Pretty by Lydia Millet

When I read Millet's novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, I commented that it reminded me of DeLillo some. When I read this novel, it reminded me of John Kennedy Toole (Confederacy of Dunces) some. Which is not to say that Millet pilfers her voice from other writers, but rather that I think I can pick out her influences and it's interesting to me that they are two quite different writers, but two male writers that are taken quite seriously by the academy etc etc and not the kind of influence that you most often see in a woman writer (if I may generalize a little)...and I like that.

Everyone's Pretty is full of strange characters behaving badly and is written largely in scene with dialogue that you probably won't hear on the street (it's stylized, it's weird, it's very very crisp and funny) and as a whole it didn't have the breadth and depth of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, but I certainly enjoyed it. What struck me most though was how willing Millet is to change her style from work to work. Some writers take on different characters from piece to piece but their voice remains quite similar (think Hemingway, Salinger, Austen, Ishiguro, Irving or REM, if you want a musical example, though I must admit I haven't heard them lately) and a seemingly much smaller number of writers embrace totally different styles and voices from book to book (Jane Smiley... um, I'm sure there are others). I tend to fall into the second camp--I like trying on voices--but I wonder if the more I write the less this will be so. I remember Russell Banks telling me once that I should experiment while I was young before I got boxed into what I (and possibly others) thought was my style. At the time, he had just finished The Sweet Hereafter which was starting to move away from his style (Contintental Drift, Affliction) and then he busted out Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter, which took his thematic interests but changed the voice and strucutre and scope of his past work really drastically, and I think allowed for some of his best work. So maybe that feeling of being boxed in gets uncomfortable and even limiting after awhile. If you write enough books that is...