Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What I read

As promised, the reading list from beach week. I began with two books by Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky. I hadn't encountered Pratchett before, though my students are always recommending him. These two are from the Discworld series, which I haven't tackled yet, but they are for kids rather than assuming the adult audience the rest of the series does. Or so I hear. In these two novels witches are good (or can be), "pixies" or "brownies" are not quite the helpful sorts we're used to encountering in English fairy books, and a 9-year-old girl can save the world. I need to say more about them soon, but that will have to do for now.

I moved back to Diana Wynne Jones after that. Having loved Fire and Hemlock, I was less thrilled with Witch Week or The Time of the Ghost. They're fine, and I heard a great talk on the Ghost one when I was at ChLA, but they don't seem as inventive as Fire and Hemlock or, for that matter, Howl's Moving Castle. Jones is terrific when she's clearly reworking a fairy tale or a fairy tale motif, I think. She loves to play with narrative and to explore the possibilities that a somewhat rigid form leaves open to her. In the two books I read on this trip there's less of that, and for me, at least, also less pleasure. But that might just have been me. I have read two of the Chrestomanci books now and there are several more to go...

On then to Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. I'd heard her speak at ChLA, and this novel won the 2005 Newbery. It's not fantasy, and I really spent most of the week steeped in fantasy, so perhaps that accounts for my response, but I really found it kind of pedestrian. There's an important story to be told about the Japanese immigrant experience in America, and Kadohata can tell it, I think, but the novel seemed a little too talky to me, a little less lyrical than it aspires to be. Still, a good story, worth telling.

Over and Over You, by Amy McAuley, is one of those books I picked up because it was next to something else I was interested in. Past-life teen romance. Hmm. A wasted hour or two, nothing special.

Criss-cross, on the other hand, by Lynne Rae Perkins, had somehow crossed my radar screen before (ah! Because it won the 2006 Newbery!) and seemed like a good bet. I once began to write a novel that I conceived of graphically, as taking place in the intersection of several lines representing several different characters' lives. I figured the intersection would be interesting, but I didn't take it any farther than that. I never wrote the novel. (Or, of course, any other novel, but that's a different story.) Lynne Rae Perkins did, and she did a great job. Several teenagers' lives intersect and nothing much happens: no murder, no magical intervention, just some day-to-day encounters that may or may not mean much in the long run. The writing in this one is terrific: she captures, I think, something of the intense self-consciousness of adolescence that Curtis Sittenfeld is working on, without turning it into pathology or "problem novel."

I had seen references to Russell Hoban's The Mouse and his Child many times over the years, and it seemed like this was a good time to read that one, too. It's not, many people say, really a children's book, although toys come alive in it. In fact it's rather dark (not that some kids' books aren't) and weighty as well. I can't say I enjoyed the experience of reading it--I was really enjoying the way Pratchett blends humor and high seriousness, and books that aren't funny weren't really grabbing me in the same way--but I think it's worth reading again. Though the edition I linked to above is newer, the one I read had nice illustrations, too, by Lillian Hoban (yes, the team who did the Frances books).

Somewhere in there I also read I was a Teenage Fairy, by Francesca Lia Block. Again, I'd heard a talk about it at ChLA and was intrigued. I've also loved Weetzie Bat and in fact have a project going to write about it. Block's writing is always a pleasure (well, my students who found it "flat" would disagree, but think postmodern fairy tale and it works), and the depictions of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and New York City as three kinds of women are fun. The story line is a bit predictable (child models preyed on by lecherous photographers) and the sense that we are all damaged is perhaps a bit overblown, but the references to Peter Pan are well done and the motif of photography fascinating. Mariah keeps promising to lend me her copy of the collected Weetzie Bat novels, but maybe I just need to go find my own.

I'm working on a project on children's literature and theology, specifically 20th-century fantasy and narrative theology, so some of the above could be considered research. I love when that happens.


Becca said...

Ah, now I see how you read so many books! It's all in the genre, baby.

patrick said...

I adore Dianna Wynne Jones, I think she's fantastic.

Other great books of hers are: Homeward Bounders, The Lives of Christopher Chant if you haven't read it yet, A Tale of Time City and Archer's Goon. All really superb. Eight Days of Luke is smaller, but also quite enjoyable. :)