Monday, November 26, 2012

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist
by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R.Clarke
read by Jeremy Irons
HarperAudio, 2000
4 discs (unabridged)

I am not sure I'm going to endear myself to people when I discuss this book. There are a lot of people who are very fond of it. I am not sure I am a fan. This book is pushy.

We read this for my adventurous genre book club. It was picked by the staff member who was covering my leave -- the second book she picked that I probably would not have (the first was horror by Stephen King, which despite my admiration for the man I just could. not. do.) And I'm really glad she was doing the picking, because I am not sure I ever would have gotten around to reading this if she hadn't, and it was a good choice, I think. Incidentally, the Stephen King was a great pick, too -- the group really enjoyed it, and we had an awesome discussion despite my wimpiness. I expect my group will have fun with this one too, but for different reasons.

On the surface, this is the story of Santiago (who is only given a name once, and thereafter referred to as "the boy"), a shepherd in Andalusia who has a recurring dream about treasure near the Pyramids. He drops everything and heads off to search for it, discovering that this search for treasure is his Personal Legend, meeting some interesting characters along the way, and learning rather a lot about life, the universe, and everything in the process.

And on the surface, I should love this. I love fantasies, I love fairytales, I'm a fan of a good quest story. But overall the effect is pretty meh. It's not the fault of the audiobook; good old Jeremy Irons does his best. It's not the fault of the simplicity of the tale, which I rather liked. It's not even the fault of the religious overtones (er, "overtones" is maybe an understatement). It's the fault of the author, who wouldn't get subtlety if it jumped up and bit him (subtly or otherwise). It's the fault of the Personal Legend and the fact that we are beaten about the head with the Message that if we are working towards our Personal Legend, all the universe will conspire to help us. And fine, agree with the Message or not, but please cease beating me with it. I get it.

What I want out of a book like this is a good story, even if it is bare-bones-simple as this one, and it doesn't have to be realistic. So I got that, and for that reason I managed to listen to the audiobook the whole way through without chucking it out the car window. The characters, even if they are just sketched in, are likable and/or interesting enough. They're a bit fairy-tale, in that they're mostly ciphers with a specific purpose in the story, but that has never stopped me. My imagination is well up to the task of filling in, in this particular kind of situation, and I actually quite liked Santiago, or who I imagined Santiago to be.

I am not against allegorical fiction. If there is a message, I am okay with that, if it is done properly. Properly means it doesn't take centre stage so often as to throw me out of the story and contemplation of what other things I might find inside. Properly means that the message is incorporated into the story in such a way that it feels comfortable and natural, an outgrowth of the story as opposed to ... whatever we got here. Here, the Message was brought up so often that it felt like neon signs were flashing: "Get it? Get it? There is a design! You only have to live your best life, follow your dreams, and good things will happen! See? See? Even if it's not easy, follow your dreams and good things will happen! YES? Get it? PERSONAL LEGEND! MAKTUB! ALSO LOVE! Do you see it?"

Which... yeesh. I don't like my fiction yelling at me. I don't find it inspiring at all.

I'm glad I listened to the audiobook, although maybe in the end that was a mistake too, because I do find that anything that recurs noticeably in a written text is magnified in an audiobook. But it was an easy listen, where I might have gotten frustrated with the read. Maybe I am too jaded at this time in my life, but I did a lot of eye-rolling and muttering, and while I was never fully irritated I did start to get there at points. Maybe that's a comment on me, and maybe I should be sad about that. On the other hand, I've read books with the same themes and the same message that didn't inspire the words "Oh, come on, really with this again?" repeatedly.

I wanted to like this book. There are things about it that are quite endearing, and I can see why it's managed to remain so popular. But it wasn't the right book for me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Spud by John van de Ruit

by John van de Ruit
Razorbill, 2007
331 pages

It's late and I probably shouldn't be writing this right now, but I doubt I'll sleep until I get some of this out of my system. This book has done its level best to destroy me, and I'm fighting back. Talk about reading outside one's comfort zone.

It's hard to talk about this. Did I love this book? Certainly parts of it. Did I hate this book? I'm not sure, but there were parts I think I can fairly say I hated. And whether I love it or hate it, this book has caused me no end of trouble since I picked it off the shelf, a lot of that my own damn fault.

To begin with, I did a thing that no librarian should do: I recommended this book to my brand-spanking-new after school club without having read it myself first. Now, to be fair, it is highly recommended by many whose opinions I respect, and its "target age" is between 12-18, which puts it right about in the ballpark for a book club of 12-13 year-olds. What I should have recognized, and did pretty much from the outset once I had started reading it is that my particular group of 12-13 year-olds isn't ready for Spud. I am a proponent of reading fearlessly, I am not a fan of censorship, I think there is space for controversy in every librarian's job. I also think that reading the right book at the wrong time can be a disaster for the reader and the book. (See: my long-held hatred of Bridge to Terabithia.) My librarian-spidey-senses are telling me that for at least five of the nine kids in the group, this is really not the right time.

So now, of course, I have to go back to them with a mea culpa. I plan on being totally honest with them: I recommended this book based on the information I had, but I hadn't actually read it, and now that I have I'm not comfortable with the choice. They're welcome to read it on their own, but I've got a couple other options for our book club that will scratch the same itch. (Schooled by Gordon Korman will be arriving just in the nick of time, I hope.)

And that's just the first bit of trouble that Spud has caused me.

Summary time!

John Milton is a very bright thirteen-year-old prepubescent boy heading off to a very prestigious all-boys boarding school in South Africa in 1990. While he is there for his first year, Nelson Mandela will be released, apartheid will start to unravel, he will fall in love with two different girls (not counting Julia Roberts), and encounter sex, great literature, death, cricket, theatre, vicious enemies, and good friends. And we have access to it all, because John "Spud" Milton is a crack diarist.

And when I say all, I mean all. Spud lets us in to his very deepest thoughts and desires, as well as chronicling everything he sees around him, leaving nothing out. It's crass, tender, brilliant, occasionally sad, often completely horrifying, and wickedly, wickedly funny. It's easy to read, even when Spud is going places I fear to tread, and he makes such an engaging, sympathetic narrator that right from the first entries the reader is rooting for him.

It's an interesting book to read right now with the bullying issue so prevalent in the media. As with Spud's friend Gecko, I cannot imagine a worse Hell than an all-boys boarding school; Spud is far more resilient than I could imagine being, far more brave (despite seeing himself a coward), and far more humane than I could imagine being under the conditions he describes. This isn't the happy boarding school world of Hogwarts. This is a viciously mean-minded place, where your friends are just as likely to turn on you as your enemies and going for help is considered a punishable betrayal. There's chronic physical and sexual assault, verbal taunts, daily humiliations... it's foul. And reading about it leaves one vaguely horrified because one knows that it's not really made up. This stuff happened. Happens. What is amazing is that anyone can come out of a situation like that and not end up a sociopath. It does become abundantly clear why kids in bad situations like this don't stand up for the bullied, though, or go to adults for help. They simply can't.

It's not all terror and misery, and Spud manages to walk just this side of the line of being the smallest and most pathetic, easiest to pick on. He's got characteristics that give him some street cred, despite his size and beautiful soprano voice. He's likable, he's clever, he's brave enough. He's a good cricketer and he's got some sort of attraction for the female sex, which while being more trouble than it's worth is also his ticket to being accepted by his peers. And it's refreshing to read a book directed at kids between 12-18 that deals so frankly and honestly with the physical as well as the mental aspects of budding sexuality. Spud doesn't think about sex all the time, but it's not that far from his thoughts ever, which feels about right for both males and females of his age.

Happily for the reader, Spud is really, really funny. Not always on purpose, but he's generally pretty good at seeing the amusing side of things, too, so the reader is laughing with him rather than at him, as he incredulously reports the madness of events around him. His family is utterly dysfunctional; his father is a drunken, paranoid wannabe who is somehow fairly harmless in spite of himself. (Talking point for book club discussion: his father is pretty racist, and I use the word "harmless" -- but even if his father is totally ineffectual and a laughing-stock, is he truly "harmless" in his bigotry?) His grandmother, "affectionately" called Wombat, is convinced everyone is stealing from her -- things like her yoghurt. As Spud says, he's pretty capable of taking what school throws at him because he's used to the complete insanity of the world. And Spud is also compassionate and considerate, trying to do the right thing while maintaining his own grip on sanity, which he (not unreasonably) tends to think he's losing at various points.

John van de Ruit, as one might guess, has inhabited Spud so thoroughly that he disappears into the text. There doesn't seem to be an author, just a kid writing in his diary. Which is mostly good, but can also be a bit difficult in that Spud sometimes can't or won't go places an author could; the depth and seriousness sometimes gets undercut or ignored. Sometimes it feels like it gets undercut for laughs, but one could read that as Spud trying to use humour to cope.

The ending, which I absolutely will not spoil for you, felt very sour compared to the rest of the story because the crisis event happens so close to the end of term that Spud doesn't really get a chance to work through it to this reader's satisfaction. Sitting back a bit, I realize that it would be unfair to ask Spud to be more thorough in his analysis and recovery, because he's a 14-year-old kid writing in a dairy. So it's authentic, perhaps, but it's abrupt. I felt like I was left hanging. And not in a way that leaves me clamouring for a sequel; it's not that kind of hanging. I'd say more but I'll start to give things away. However, I'm writing this review at midnight even though smallfry is asleep and I should be too, because I needed some time to deal with what happened.

Do I think you should read this book? Yes. Read this book and then come back here and talk to me about it. This is a great, refreshing, darkly funny, extremely-well-written book. As you can probably tell from the length of this entry, I want to talk about this book. I think there's incredible amounts of fodder for discussion here, and perhaps someday I will take a crack at it with a book club, when the time is right.

UPDATE: Since writing this, I've had my book club meeting, and explained my discomfort to the kids; they promptly asked why, so I explained that too. Then instead of telling them we weren't doing the book, I said I wasn't going to tell them they had to read it, but they could choose to read it or Schooled. Of the seven at the meeting, two took Spud home, and five took Schooled. Kids are the best judges of their own comfort levels. I'm looking forward to our discussion!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Green Grass, Running Water
by Thomas King
HarperCollins, 1993
431 pages

In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.

Coyote was there, but Coyote was asleep. That Coyote was asleep and that Coyote was dreaming. When that Coyote dreams, anything can happen.
I can tell you that.

I am not sure how to talk about this book. Aarti has done a much more concise job than I will; please do go read her musings on it. She makes a more enthusiastic case than I do, though I don't think I liked this book less.

There is a lot that can be said about this book. I loved it, I really did. I've owned it for years, have started trying to read it a couple of times and always enjoyed the first little bit, but for some reason it kept getting shunted. Not this time, and I read it quickly and avidly. I loved pretty much everything about it. The language, the imagery, the rhythms that read easily and lend themselves to a reading that almost has the power of an aural experience. I loved the setting. I even started to love the characters, flawed and wonderful as they were.

Let's see about some sort of summary... well, there's Lionel, and if the novel has a hero, it's probably Lionel. Lionel is a somewhat aimless, meandering character, a television salesperson just about to turn forty. He has almost negative initiative and what little inertia he started out with has long since petered out. But he's not happy. He lives in Blossom, Alberta, not far from the reservation he grew up on, but he rarely goes to visit. His sister Latisha is doing well for herself running the Dead Dog Cafe, a restaurant catering to gullible tourists. His uncle Eli lives alone in a tiny cabin in the shadow of an enormous dam -- a dam he's managed to keep from running for over ten years in an enormous, drawn-out legal battle with the company that built it. Eli is friends, or perhaps frenemies, with the owner of the dam, Clifford Sifton, who comes by every morning for coffee and a request that Eli get the hell out of his way. Lionel's cousin Charlie, formerly a television salesman at the same place where Lionel finds himself stuck, is now a bigshot lawyer... working for the company the owns the dam. And finally Lionel's sometime girlfriend Alberta, a college professor (who is also seeing Charlie) is on her way home for Lionel's birthday, wishing she could trade in both her men for a baby. All of these pieces, and several others, are about to collide at the annual Sun Dance.

This doesn't even touch on the four Indians and Coyote, whose sections were by far my favourites. Overall, the effect is less chaotic than it likely could be because somehow King manages to keep it together; but it's beautifully messy, rambunctious, uncomfortable, joyful, and absolutely hilarious.

It's a wonderful reading experience, this one, and different. Because of the rhythm, the fact that it reads very much like an oral story in many places, it's not your usual novel. There aren't so much chapters as little sections, and it jumps all over the place. It circles back on itself multiple times; a reader paying attention will catch nods back to other parts of the story, and back to other bits of Canlit, even. I love books that do this, because every time one comes across one of these little winks to the reader, I always feel like I've been given a little gift.

What struck me while reading this book is the casual, endemic, embedded racism that becomes exposed by King's lovely bright light. We have the government's role, which is almost a laughing-stock in the book; this is the insidious, systemic racism that goes largely unnoticed by those of us outside the system. It's the reason the dam was built where it was, not in any of the three recommended locations. It's the reason, ultimately, that Lionel is stuck where he is. It's the reason that Alberta's family's fancy-dance costumes are confiscated at the border when they're going to visit relatives in the States.

We have society and the media's role, exemplified in this book by Western movies and books: Indians as the bad guys, cowboys as the good guys. It's not as simplified in Green Grass, Running Water as it sounds here, but it is, in some ways, that simple.

And then there's Bill Bursum, Lionel's boss, owner of the television store. His is the casual, off-handed racism that grows out of the above two types, and it's also the most cringe-worthy. He treats Lionel terribly, though not outwardly -- well, and his other employee, too, and she's female, so one thinks maybe Bill Bursum is just generally a pretty casually racist, sexist guy. But he's also the kind of guy we all know and most of us probably wouldn't give a second thought, until we look a little bit closer. He's not a bad guy, he's just... incredibly small-minded. He's that guy who makes politically incorrect jokes and comments and expects everyone to laugh; we might wince, but we probably don't challenge him on it.

If I keep going, this review is going to be a mile long, but it's also important to note: this isn't an issues book, it's a book where the issues are present but incidental to the telling the story. I haven't even touched on the fact that this book put me in mind of Carl Hiaasen, in a good way, thanks to the humour and the way the space is so integral to the tale. And the way some characters, at least, end up where the reader feels they should. I haven't delved as much into the wonderful imagery and imagination. I haven't talked about how the setting is perfect and awe-inspiring. I haven't touched nearly as much on the women in this book as I'd like to, either. And the funny. I haven't made this book sound nearly as funny as it is. But perhaps that's for the best, because you really, really have to read this book to understand. Highly recommended reading. Fall right in and float, and trust King to take you on a stunning, convoluted, thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

The Shadowy Horses
by Susanna Kearsley
Allison and Busby, 2009 (originally published in 1997)
407 pages

Huh, 407 pages went by really, really fast. Which is a good sign! For some reason, this book had crossed my awareness three or four times in the past two weeks, and then suddenly one of our library patrons brought it back last week. It was headed back to one of our other branches with no holds, and it seemed like fate. So I picked it up, figuring it might be a good semi-spooky read for Hallowe'en. And it was just perfectly eerie enough without freaking me out, and a solid read for other reasons as well. Solid enough that I've gone ahead and purchased a copy for my Kobo (unfortunately, not with this cover; the ebook cover is just baffling), and if I see a paper version floating around I'll pick that up too.

Verity Grey is an archaeologist. A friend and ex-flame has recommended her for a dig that he's also working on, a nice cushy job in Scotland near the town of Eyemouth on the North Sea. Feeling restless and wanting something different, and intrigued by the hints Adrian has dropped, Verity leaves her comfortable life in London to meet Peter Quinnell, the charismatic, wealthy, and possibly mad director of the planned dig. But it doesn't take long for Verity to start believing in Quinnell, and other seemingly impossible things -- the ghostly Sentinel that a local boy has befriended, and the fact that perhaps Quinnell and the psychic child have stumbled upon the final resting place of the legendary, long lost Ninth Legion, Legio IX Hispana.

First, the bad, and there is some: I don't think this is a stellar book. The writing was occasionally a little clunky, a little info-dumpy. The foreshadowing occasionally foreshadows nothing, or nothing serious. The hints of gothic suspense are just that: hints, that often flutter away into nothing, which left even my faint heart a little unsatisfied. Other foreshadowing is a bit roll-one's-eyes obvious. As a piece with these writing-related beefs, there can be a bit much telling (ie. Verity is referred to as "difficult" a couple of times) and not enough showing (she never appeared particularly difficult to me). All of this is pretty minor, comparatively, but I mention it because I was occasionally pulled out of the story, even if just momentarily.

Also, I wanted more of the horses. They never really gelled with the rest of the story for me. But they could have been so cool. The first appearance of the horses was the goosebumpiest moment of the book for me.

The middling: though there are some deeper threads here, they're never really investigated in any serious depth, so don't pick this up if you want a read that delves into family relationships, for example, in any significant way. There seems to be an attempt at exploring themes of family ties and tragedies, but it all seemed to me to be backdrop, not very meaty at all. That was just fine by me in this read, because I wasn't expecting, or wanting necessarily, a bigger emotional resonance. I just wanted some vaguely gothic fun, some ghosts, some history, and some characters I could connect with.

Which brings me to the good: writing flaws aside, this book is compulsively readable. I stayed up about four hours past my bedtime working away on it, and when I wasn't reading it I wanted to be. The plot is thick, the fun is there, and the characters are worth it. Verity herself is believable and very likable, intelligent and sensible, willing to believe the best of everyone but not blind. She's confident, absolutely not a pushover. The other characters are varied, and though we see them only through Verity's first person narration, they take on lives of their own. But it's really Verity who makes this book. I would read several more books with her as the narrator, if I could, just to spend more time with her.

And the history! This is where this book excels, although it occasionally does get bogged down in Kearsley's clear enthusiasm for the science of archaeology. Not that I minded much, given my own predilections where science is concerned, and the portrayal of science in media. This is where things can get a bit info-dumpy, but though it took me slightly out of the story, it was Verity's own enthusiasm that propelled the facts into conversation. I know that archaeology isn't glamourous and thrilling, but I've always been interested in it and despite its distinct lack of glamour I've always kind of thought I'd enjoy being an archaeologist of some description. There but for the siren song of environmental biology and librarianship I might have gone. So it's possible I enjoyed this book even more than others not so interested in archaeology might have, but I don't think it would be a show-stopper for them; there's enough here in the characters and plot to keep one engaged. Just skip the parts about the differences between Roman marching camps and forts.

This is gothic lit lite, so fans of the deeply creepy or very suspenseful may not want to bother with this. But a little light romance, a smattering of history, and a faintly ghostly story rooted well in sense of place (I really did feel like I was hanging out in Eyemouth and I read this all with a thick Scottish brogue in my head) was exactly what I wanted right now, and I'm looking forward to subsequent re-reads. Recommended, as long as you're aware that it's not a deep, disturbing, or heart-wrenching sort of read. I'm not quite convinced that Kearsley should be on my must-read list, but I'll certainly read more by her when the opportunity presents itself.