Wednesday, December 26, 2012

this here blog is four

Just thought I should note that before I once again bury myself in totally failing at keeping up with the holidays. For all of you who think having a newly-minted toddler around for Christmas is awesome and fun, you are right. It is also an insane amount of work and it will once again necessitate entirely new ways of doing things FOREVER.

I am sort of reading, but not really, to be honest. I think I am making it five or six pages at a time through my current non-fiction, and I am e-stuck on both the e-books I'm reading, even though I think I am e-njoying both.

I'll do some yearly wrap-up posts at some point, I swear, including my favourite First Lines and Statistics posts. Look for them in February, at the rate I'm going.

Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday, and thanks for sticking around!

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
by Barbara Robinson, narrated by Elaine Stritch
HarperChildren's Audio, 2006 (novel originally published 1971)
2 discs

This is a clear case, for me, of the narrator of an audiobook making a story. From the minute Elaine Stritch's delightful voice began this tale, I was hooked. I think I would have enjoyed this mildly if I'd read it myself, but having it read to me in a dry, wise, and perfectly-timed way elevated the experience.

The story is short: there is a family in town, the Herdmans, made up of six delinquent children and their absentee mother. We meet them through the eyes of our unnamed narrator after they have burned down a neighbour's toolshed and absconded with the donuts delivered for the firemen. These kids are notorious and nasty, bullies at school and general troublemakers everywhere else. So no one expects to see them at church (reasonably; they're only there because the narrator's little brother boasted there were refreshments) -- and no one expects them to be interested in the church's Christmas pageant. The pageant has been the same year, after year, after year... but with Herdmans in the starring roles, this year's pageant is going to be something else entirely.

I am not sure there is a whole lot of meat here for discussion with my parent-child book club. A number of the kids are in Christmas pageants of their own, so that will be fun to compare; and I'm going to be interested to hear what they have to say about the Herdmans. From an adult perspective, it's clear the Herdman kids have some serious behavioural issues, possibly stemming from poverty and neglect at home, and it's just as clear that they're not getting the kind of help they need from the adults in their lives. I'll want to hear what the kids have to say about that. The message of redemption will also be interesting to talk about even though the book ends before we find out of the Herdmans are really changed by their experience. And we can talk about how changing things unexpectedly can lead us to see things clearly, how it can lead us to understand things we've never understood before.

All this said, it's a funny book, and it's supposed to be funny. I want to look a little bit behind the funny, but I also want to leave the book intact for these kids to enjoy. It's a sweet story, religious (it's about a church Christmas pageant, after all) but not pushy, and extremely short. It ended so quickly and with so many unanswered questions on this adult reader's part. The build up to the pageant was pretty big, and the pageant itself felt a little bit anticlimactic. But I still thoroughly enjoyed myself, in large part thanks to Elaine Stritch. I can totally see myself borrowing this little gem of an audiobook every year around this time to get myself into the spirit of the season. If you've read the book or seen the TV movie but never listened to the audio, I highly recommend finding yourself a copy and having a listen. It won't take you long, and it's worth it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 2009
243 pages

I woke up thinking a very pleasant thought. There is lots left in the world to read.

I think I should by rights hate this book, since it's the narrator talking directly at me in stream of consciousness, and that's an unusual and very difficult conceit to pull off... but the further I get into it the more I like it, and suddenly I find myself grinning and nodding along like an idiot. It's a courageous choice, and having worked, it brings the reader so close to the narrator that one can't help but love him and feel for him, even if we are well-acquainted with his foibles and flaws, both the ones he points out to us and the ones he inadvertently reveals.

Paul Chowder is, above all, easily distracted. Teaching us about proper poetry meter and having just blasted iambic pentameter to pieces, we end up in a totally different (and totally recognizable) place:

See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. "Tetra" is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly  and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?

Heh. And also, sigh.

Another note that keeps cropping up is birds. Paul is not (or claims not to be) a big fan, which is one place where he and I differ. Frankly, we differ on a lot of things, although not on our computer game-playing habits.

You hear that bird? Chirtle chirtle chirtle chirtle. With birds it's different. Birds are very different than we are. They don't know what an upbeat is. They go, Chirtle chirtle chirtle chirtle. And then the next time they might just go, Chirtle -- chirtle chirtle. It's like some kind of wigged-out aimless Gregorian chant. And then sometimes: Chirtle chirtle. And then: Chirtle chirtle chirt? Questioning. You don't know where you are with that.

This is an interesting book in that I kind of want to quote all of it for you. It is extremely meandering, so there's not a lot of forward momentum, other than the fact that I am enjoying Paul's thoughts so much I want more, more, more. And sometimes I go backwards and read bits over again. It's not a very efficient way to read, all this stopping and quoting. This is not a very efficient sort of book, though.

There is a kind of tenderness here, an exposure that is both sweet and sad. Paul is a lovely man, a poet suffering from an absolutely debilitating case of writer's block over a summer during which his partner of eight years has left him and he has to write an introduction to his anthology of collected rhyming poems. At the beginning he seems like he's a run-of-the-mill procrastinator, but the further we get into the summer and into Paul's story we understand that he's not just procrastinating. He's having a true crisis. It's not the sort of crisis he respects -- most of his favourite poets were true sufferers, and he doesn't count himself among them either as a good poet or a true sufferer. But he is suffering, and the reader sees that, and even as the reader shakes their head at his folly they also understand, completely, that he just can't write.

And then we get further in and little pieces of mystery begin to unfold; why did Roz leave? Does she still love him? Why can't Paul teach? Why rhyme? What's wrong with iambic pentameter? What on earth has happened to shake Paul's confidence so badly?

And when the answers are revealed -- not with drama, but in tiny ways that could easily slip by without the reader's notice, except that the reader has been paying close attention because Paul really does know how to use language -- they are perfect and understated and understandable and sometimes not singular, but a confluence of factors leading to the present circumstance.

This is an intimate book, a splendid book that goes on just long enough and drifts to a close in a beautiful way. There is subtlety, a careful scrutiny of the small, and an acknowledgement of the absurd and the universal. I know much more about poetry than I did when I started it, too, but that's totally beside the point. It is a gift to spend a week in Paul Chowder's gentle, distracted, intelligent, funny head and I will be coming back to this book again. This is one of those books that makes it hard for me to decide whether or not to search out more by the author; what if his other books aren't anything like this one? I can't imagine that there's anything else out there quite like this one. But then, if this book is anything to go by, Baker knows how to write. I'm looking forward to reading more.