Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 23, 2011

Holiday ghosts

A Christmas Carol (1843), Charles Dickens

Unbelievable, that I could reach my age without ever having read Dickens’ classic. I’ve seen movie versions (Alistair Sim’s 1951 Scrooge is my favorite, followed closely by Bill Murray’s 1988 Scrooged), heard radio versions, and seen TV specials. But I’ve never actually picked up the book.

So, before Christmas is upon me again, I’ve decided to read it. But I don’t have a copy, and the library is closed! Never fear, the internet sends a version straight to my computer. A cup of tea, a slice of fruitcake, and a background of holiday music sets the mood.

Surely I don’t need to recount the plot: clanking chains, ghosts, cute kid suffering from mysterious ailment in his leg, a changed life. Dickens gives us London before Christmas became a hugely commercial enterprise (cue Stan Freberg’s Green Christmas). No garish light displays, no holiday greeting cards, no corner lot devoted to neon colored aluminum trees. Not even a brightly wrapped package anywhere to be seen. Just family gatherings and food.

Sounds good to me.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 16, 2011

An Englishman on the beach

Paradise News (1991), David Lodge, 294 pp.

I love library book sales. I’ve found gems (and fool’s gold) in bins next to the check-out desk. It’s always worth sorting through at least the top layer, just to see if there’s something worth grabbing for a buck. This was.

Bernard Walsh, a lonely loner recovering from a failed relationship, finds true love on the beaches of paradise. BUT. Walsh’s failed relationship was with the Catholic Church; he arrives in Hawaii with his father to visit the father’s estranged sister; and the love he finds is the woman (Yolande Miller) who puts his father in the hospital the day after they arrive by hitting him with her car.

Walsh’s journey, from the moment he talks his father into flying from England to Hawaii, is fraught with whiny old folks, whiny tourists, and his own almost-whiny lack of sex-exteem. Mostly because he’s never had any. He doesn’t set out to lose his virginity in Hawaii, but I had to cheer when it happened.

Is it possible for a middle-aged man to be the hero of a coming-of-age novel? If so, Walsh is that hero.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 9, 2011

Bittersweet revenge

Montmorency’s Revenge (2006), Eleanor Updale, 289 pp.

You may recall from my post about the wickedly complex Montmorency (is he good? is he bad? is he a clever combination of the two?), in this series the good guys don’t always win.

What I didn’t say was that Updale left us at the end of the third book with the death of a major character and the murderer’s escape to join his anarchist buddies in America.

This last chapter of the series begins with Queen Victoria on her deathbed and those same anarchists planning an explosive gesture for the funeral cortege. It’s looking bad for world leaders, but Montmorency and his team of anarchy fighters are on the case.

Although not as satisfying as the previous three books, Updale whips us through London and New York at the start of the 20th century, revealing the nasty parts as well as the nice. And at the end of this one, Montmorency’s future is looking somewhat brighter.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 2, 2011

HP for adults

The Magicians (2009) and The Magician King (2011), Lev Grossman (402 and 400 pp. respectively)

Hands up, anyone, if you ever wished you could live in the world created by your favorite writer/s. Top on my list is Anne Shirley’s PEI of the late 1800s, despite the mosquitoes that LM Montgomery never writes about. But second would be Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin’s mysterious archipelago. The combinations of sea and magic, islands and dragons, are irresistible.

Grossman has created a fictional world — Fillory (very similar to Narnia) — for his character, Quentin Clearwater, in The Magicians and its sequel. What I mean to say is, Quentin has read every book about Fillory, knows its boundaries and topography perfectly, but knows also that the world isn’t real. It exists only in the series of books that he has read too many times to count. It’s Quentin’s fictional world, within Grossman’s fictional world.

Still with me?

Then Quentin unexpectedly finds himself accepted into a special college in upstate New York. Like Hogwarts, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy trains magicians in spells and the proper use of magic. It’s a typical college, with houses and dorms, cliques and passable cafeteria food. An off-campus term is spent in the Antarctic, with the final project an unaided trip to the South Pole.

Grossman doesn’t take his magical world for granted. Here’s a passage that comes after Quentin’s graduation ceremony. Prof. Fogg is speaking to Quentin and his classmates.

Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic ….  It doesn’t really make sense.  It’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart — reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

Little children don’t know that. Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded.

But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.

I sometimes feel as though we’ve stumbled on a flaw in the system, don’t you? … Is it possible that magic is knowledge that would be better off forsworn? Tell me this: Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?

That final question is a clue to Quentin’s challenge. Does growing up require that he put away all childish things, including magic?

Then (there’s always another “then”) Quentin discovers that Fillory is an actual world to which he can travel, and this is the start of all his problems.  Like the Pevensie children in Narnia, Quentin must vanquish an evil beast that threatens to destroy the fantasy world he loves. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that the Beast is someone very like Quentin himself. And, as with so many fantasy novels, the Beast is someone fighting with all its might against inexorable death.

Quentin’s quest continues in The Magician King, where he boards ship to search for several keys that are spread across much of Fillory’s uncharted Eastern Ocean. There’s something about a long sea voyage to unknown shores. Ged’s in The Farthest Shore and the children’s in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — even Frodo’s and Bilbo’s at the end of The Return of the King — the unknown destination makes it hard to imagine how anyone can start such a journey, but it’s one we’re all on.

Sorry, didn’t mean to get so gloomy. These are good books, but, like all good books, they leave the reader with plenty to think about.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 1, 2011

True confessions

Way back in August, I vowed to read only new books until the end of December, or to confess if I broke this pledge.

Well, I did pretty well until the end of November. Then, mentally worn out by my efforts for NaNoWriMo 2011, I could fight the urge no longer, and I pulled out my 5+ volume set of The Borrowers and read them all in about 3 days. It was restful, reminding me why I read so many of my favorite tales again and again.

But now, I’m back on the wagon and working my way through more new title — new to me, at any rate. This month, some adult fantasy from Lev Grossman, the final installment of the Montmorency series, and a couple of surprises.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 25, 2011

So, you’re saying the moon is NOT made of green cheese?

The Hopkins Manuscript (1939), R C Sherriff, 269 pp.

Another item for my ‘obscure book’ list. A friend loaned this to me, saying only, “It’s about how the moon crashes into the earth, but that doesn’t destroy us. People do.”

Sounds like a happy read, right?

Well, there are funny moments. Edgar Hopkins, the narrator, is a persnickety upper-middle-class countryman who breeds chickens for show (high ha-ha factor right there). Independently wealthy, he lives alone, blind to his snobbish crankiness. Even after the Cataclysm, as society is crumbling around him and he finds his lonely life changed (for the better) by joining forces with a brother and sister in their late teens/early twenties — even then he can’t let go of his sense of propriety. At a village dinner some months after the moon has killed more people than the Black Death did five centuries earlier, he admires the fact that class distinctions have disappeared, and then two lines later happily reports that he spoke to the washerwoman sitting next to him “as if she were my equal”.

Yes, there will always be an England.

Unless the moon decides to crash into the Atlantic Ocean.

In this alternate universe, the moon is hollow, so it collapses into the sea without completely demolishing the world. Most of the population of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East survive with their societal structures intact. Uh-oh for the colonialists!

My edition includes an afterword by George Gamow analyzing Sherriff’s science. It’s a relief to learn that, if the moon should crash into the earth, we wouldn’t have to worry about subsequent wars. As Gamow so encouragingly put it, “it is not likely that anyone at all could survive this descent upon the earth.”

Whatever happened to “not with a bang, but a whimper”?


Postscript (2012): Of course the publication date should have been a tip-off, but now that I think about it, I have to wonder to what extent Sheriff used the moon’s impact with the earth as an allegory for what was happening in Europe in the mid to late 1930s.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 18, 2011


Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was (1984), Barry Hughart, 278 pp.

So. Imagine that every person you know between the ages of 4 and 14 has fallen mysteriously ill, and no doctor can cure them. What do you do?

If you’re Number Ten Ox, living in ancient China, you run non-stop to the nearest town and find a wise man willing to accept the pittance your village can offer for his help. Ox is lucky. He finds master Li Kao, the unlikeliest of heroes.

Li Kao is so old, he wishes he were 90 again. Ox has to carry him whenever speed is vital, the old man bumping on his back as he races through maze and tunnel, countryside and town. Yet Li Kao’s mind is prodigious, his memory unfailing, so the combination of this mind and Ox’s strength make them an unbeatable team.

Ghosts, disguises, despicable villains, beautiful young women, misers, bandits — all play a part in this complex comic novel as Ox and Li Kao try again and again to find the cure. They have to solve puzzles (what is the meaning of the pendant a young girl gives Ox? why do certain people keep cropping up? how can they lay all those ghosts to rest?), fight armies, and escape certain death so many times that I wondered if they were, perhaps, already dead.

Favorite quote:

“Well, it’s an idea, and even a bad idea is better than none,” said Master Li. “Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.”

The mark of a great novel: its ideas are never outdated.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 11, 2011

Ars gratia artis

Chasing Vermeer (2004), Blue Balliett, 254 pp. (+ two sequels)

A Lady Writing, c 1665

Anything with “Vermeer” in the title gets my attention. I’ve been a huge fan since my teens, and it’s thrilling to live in a city that holds several of his works.

I spotted this book in DC’s Union Station Barnes & Noble, and got it as well as the 2 sequels. It was only later that I figured out the author is the daughter of the late Whitney Balliett, one-time jazz critic for The New Yorker. Cool!

Robie House, 1910

Anyway, Blue Balliett is on a mission. This series is all about art — how it can change lives, how it has to be part of everyone’s schooling, how it appeals to people in so many different ways. In the three books, she covers painting, architecture, and sculpture.

Canine, c 1956

But I may be giving the wrong impression here. These aren’t academic books arguing to save arts education. Each book features pre-teens solving a mystery, but also negotiating their way through an often confusing world. In Chasing Vermeer, we meet Petra and Calder, sixth-graders who find themselves thrown together in search of a missing painting. Their individual skills combine well. Petra loves words, writes constantly, and notices things around her. Calder plays with pentominoes, thinks with numbers, and loves patterns. He invents a pentomino code for communicating with his best friend, Tommy (currently out of town, but soon to return). Will these two be able to rescue the painting before it’s too late?

In the second and third books, Tommy joins the group, but the balance is off. He’s Calder’s best friend, jealous of Petra, and therefore snide and distrustful. Petra can’t stand his attitude, and Calder chafes at being in the middle. It takes a real threat, in the third book, to solidify this trio. Can they cooperate enough to save Wright’s Robie House from destruction in book two and to locate a missing Calder (both a sculpture and their friend) in book three?

Well, of course they do.

PS: The illustrator, Brett Helquist, does a wonderful job representing the characters AND the art in these books.

PPS: Lo!, by Charles Fort, plays a huge role in Chasing Vermeer. Watch for a future post on this weird and wonderful writer.

PPPS: Calder would love that this post is dated 11/11/11!

Sequels: The Wright 3 (2006), and The Calder Game (2008)

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 4, 2011

Post-Halloween read

copyright Ben Rubin 2011

When Comes What Darkly Thieves (2011), Ben Rubin, 19 pp.

This book came to me via one of my online groups, and what a privilege it is to have a copy.

The text is as mysterious as the title, with just a few white lines on each black page telling the story. A gypsy king finds you and steals the moonbeams from your eyes; with the help of a crow, you track down the gypsy and ask for them back. But it’s too late — he has transformed them into something else.

Next to the lines are illustrations that glow like jewels — collages with broad patches of colors, brush strokes of brilliant hues, and marbled effects surrounding shapes that look like embryonic insects. Crows, houses, tables, people: all are recognizable yet refracted through the prism of the artist’s eye.

Adults and children will fall under the spells of the frightening insinuations: the gypsies and crows, hiding under tables and rugs, revengeful dreams. The inscrutable tale takes us into the subconscious, where fears and needs control our actions, and then brings us out again with a fillip at the end that almost made me laugh.

This book is only available at the publisher’s website, as both traditional and e-book. A rich brew here, distilled to its essence. It’ll take many reads to see it all.

BTW, the publisher, Button-Down Bird, donates part of its profits to organizations that “support the development of children”. Worthy causes AND a feast for the eyes. What could be better?

Ben Rubin’s website is here.


Posted by: Lizzie Ross | October 28, 2011

Mississippi cotton fields, 1933

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Mildred D. Taylor, 276 pp.

In The Personal History of Rachel Dupree (2008), Weisgarber tells the story of a black rancher in 1910s South Dakota.  In Taylor’s novel, we read about a black cotton farmer in 1930s Mississippi. Neither story is easy to read, with the main characters bucking prejudice and danger to hold on to the land they worked hard to buy.

That’s where the similarities end. Taylor’s story is relentless in its depiction of the horrors of racial prejudice and what it costs one family to survive them.

Cassie Logan — 12 years old, bold, clever, and short-tempered — is our witness to everything that happens during this pivotal year. She “grows up”, as her mother puts it, as she learns what a black girl cannot do and say in small-town Mississippi, where share-cropping, company stores, and less-than-equal education are the norm for her black neighbors. She’s lucky, because her father owns 400 acres of forest land and cotton fields.

The Logan house isn’t large, just 3 rooms and a kitchen, where Cassie lives with 3 brothers, both her parents, and a grandmother. But it’s comfortable, they have plenty to eat, and her childhood is full of pleasures. She knows the seasons by how they feel and smell — spring and summer mean bare feet in the earth, fall means the smell of food being canned for the winter, and winter itself is evenings doing homework in a warm room, with her family sitting nearby.

Yet this life is also full of terrors: a school bus races down a narrow muddy road past scurrying black kids to entertain its white passengers, a white man knocks Cassie off a sidewalk because she wouldn’t move for his daughter, black men are lynched, houses and fields burned down, her father shot.

In both books, land is a critical asset for the main characters, for which they will sacrifice almost anything. Rachel DuPree’s husband puts his wife and children at risk to save his land. I suspect Cassie’s father would never go that far, but clearly his 400 acres make it possible for the Logans to live in a world where whites keep blacks in their “proper” place. The land makes it possible for him to ignore the offenses heaped on him daily, the insults to his children and wife. At one point, he advises Cassie:

… there’ll be a whole lot of things you ain’t gonna wanna do but you’ll have to do in this life just so you can survive…. If I’d’ve gone after Charlie Simms and given him a good thrashing like I felt like doing, the hurt to all of us would’ve been a whole lot more than the hurt you received, so I let it be. I don’t like letting it be, but I can live with that decision. ¶But there are other things, Cassie, that if I’d let be, they’d eat away at me and destroy me in the end. And it’s the same with you, baby. There are things you can’t back down on, things you gotta take a stand on.

Throughout the story, there’s a sense of threat overhanging this family. They have too much, and I had to wonder if fate would bring them down. By the end, I felt a little more secure about their future, but also certain that Cassie would grow up to be among the protesters marching against the fire hoses and dogs. She’d have understood that the time to remain silent and safe had ended, that this was something she would have to take a stand on. She’d have done it for her father and for the land.

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