Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky (The Hard Pan Trilogy 1)
by Susan Patron
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006
134 pages

I am turning over a new leaf a couple of weeks early, and never again assigning books for my parent-child book clubs that I have not yet read myself. I have good reasons for this. I had never read this book, but I've wanted to for years, and aside from the fact that it won the Newbery and I was pretty sure it would be fantastic, and that Darla recommends it, I knew very little about it.

Loved this book. Let's get that out of the way first.

Am not sure the kids in the group will love this book, but I think the parents will enjoy it, and I certainly hope they won't throw a fit over the word "scrotum" appearing. We shall see. It's a quieter story than the kids in this particular group tend to like, but it's also very short, so I think there is potential here. Also, it's hard not to love Lucky.

Lucky lives in the tiny town of Hard Pan in California, a little place in the middle of the desert that used to be a mining town but has dwindled down to a population of 43. Two of those people are Lucky and her guardian, Brigitte, a beautiful woman from France who has come to take care of Lucky at the behest of her entirely absent father, since Lucky's mother died two years before. And Lucky is certain that Brigitte is planning to head back to France any time now, leaving her entirely orphaned, so she will have to leave Hard Pan, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, her dog HMS Beagle, and everything she knows. So now Lucky really needs to find her Higher Power, like the people at the twelve step meetings she keeps eavesdropping on, because Lucky is planning to run away.

She is such a prickly child, Lucky. And she's an odd duck, there's no question. She has a very particular way of looking at the world, and it's highly amusing to an outsider, but to her it's a very serious way. She is working her way as logically as she can through some very difficult things - her mother's death is raw, and her fear of being abandoned is constant - and while an adult reader can look at Lucky and wonder exactly how she comes to the conclusions she does, they make perfect sense to the child Lucky is. She is also good-hearted, curious, and passionate. Her greatest hero is Charles Darwin. She likes snakes. How could I not love this kid?

Also, she is the kind of kid who describes things like this:

Lucky had the same jolting feeling as when you're in a big hurry to pee and you pull down your pants fast and back up to the toilet without looking - but some man or boy before you has forgotten to put the seat down. So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower. Your bottom gets a panic of bad surprise.

"A panic of bad surprise." Isn't that great?

The other characters, particularly Brigitte, Lincoln, Miles, and Short Sammy, are seen through the very close lens of Lucky's perception, though the book is told in third-person. They are therefore somewhat limited in their characterization, but Patron does a good job of fleshing them out as well as she can for us. We see through Lucky's eyes, but we notice things that she does not, in her descriptions of events and reports of conversations. And Lucky is a pretty observant kid, about many things.

It would be remiss of me to forget to mention the charming illustrations by Matt Phelan sprinkled throughout the tale. They're pencil, black and white, and they perfectly suit the mood and tale, and bring Lucky and Hard Pan to life in a slightly whimsical way.

So, yes. This book: recommended. It's maybe not a must-read for an adult, but I don't think you would go wrong by reading it, and the story and characters have stuck with me well after the book was gone. I'm looking forward to seeing how the kids react to it. Kids who are looking for contemporary stories will eat this up. It's amusing, silly, serious, charming, and just the right length.

Monday, December 30, 2013

first lines 2013

I missed Melwyk's post again, somehow, but I love the idea of using the first line of the first entry of the month as a way to review and reflect on one's year in blogging. A somewhat representative picture of the entire year can be had, it seems, by hopscotching in a measured way. At least this year I'll get the post in before the clock rolls over to 2014!

Funnily enough, we start this year with... last year's first lines!

Even though I'm a little late with it this year, I always enjoy this post.
(first lines meme 2012)

I love that my adult book club asked to read this book.
(A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs)

This book has everything: murder, politics, possible elopements and runaways, battles, mysterious heroes, snowstorms, fires, and more.
(The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters)

I have absolutely no excuse for taking over a month to finish this book, because it's really fantastic.
(Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead)

This book grew on me.
(Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill)

You're not likely to see a lot of parenting books show up here.
(Just Because it's Not Wrong Doesn't Make it Right by Barbara Coloroso)

One of the reasons I write this blog is to examine my own reactions to what I read.
(The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane)

I would have done better with this if I'd written the review right after finishing the book, but so it goes.
(Books by Larry McMurtry)

I do so love my adult book club.
(Cheating Death by Dr. Sanjay Gupta)

This is a book I've been holding on to for a long time.
(Days of Sand by Hélène Dorion)

There is something about Margaret Mahy's writing.
(Heriot by Margaret Mahy)

"Evidence that science doesn't know everything: Science will tell you that the Northern Lights are silent, cherry blossoms have no scent, and the likelihood of Santa Claus actually existing is low, to say the least."
(Coal Dust Kisses by Will Ferguson)

So, my determination to actually fully read the books I assign to my book clubs is showing up here; three of those twelve first lines are from reviews of books I've read for the adult book club I lead, where we read adventurously from many different genres. I seem to be getting over my self-imposed anxiety about reading to a deadline, but it helps that I don't worry too much if I haven't managed to finish the book by the time the meeting rolls around. All of my wonderful groups are very forgiving.

Also, I have been a lot less finicky about getting my posts up in a "reasonable" time this year; occasionally I'll finish a book and let it go a week or two before I finally post my thoughts. This more relaxed mode seems to work for actually writing about the books, rather than getting so behind like I did last year, but can come back to bite me, as my August first line points out; occasionally, if I didn't love or dislike the book, I can forget enough about it that I am at a loss for what to say.

It looks about right for the year - a mix of things I really enjoyed, and some disappointments, but overall a very solid reading year for me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

the year that flew by

I cannot believe I am already writing this post. Maybe it's just the time of day, and the time of year, and maybe it's the half-gallon of fondue I consumed this evening, but there is a lot I can't remember about the past year: it's just a blur. I spend my days running from one thing to another, but not in a stressed, bad way. It's just there's so much to pack in, now. Music classes and swimming lessons, messy art, working at the library, cleaning (all right, not that much cleaning), reading, gardening, watching my very energetic child make up stories about a dragon that likes to eat chestnuts and a stuffed toy rat called The Woolly Man. These things consume a day, and day by day they consume months, and then a year has gone by and the blog is five and I am still doing that thing where I read something and then write stuff about it.

I have felt that in some ways this has been a much better reading year for me. I've read some great stuff this year. Now if only I could remember any of it...

Books read in the past year: 42
Fiction: 31
Nonfiction: 11
Adult books: 27
Young adult books: 6
Middle-grade books: 9
Graphic novels: 1 (yikes)
Audiobooks: 9
eBooks: 10
Series started: 11 (this number is not getting any better)
Series finished: 0 (neither is this one)

Author's nationality:
Canadian: 5
American: 22
British: 10
Thai: 2
French: 1
Italian: 1
Kiwi: 1

Decade of first publication: 
2010: 9
2000: 18
1990: 5
1980: 3
1970: 1
1960: 1
1950: 1
1940: 1
1910: 1
1810: 2

The numbers don't bear much resemblance to last year, and once again I'm under 50 books read for the year. In fact, this year looks surprisingly like 2011, right down to the approximate ratios of fiction:nonfiction and adult:young adult:middle-grade. Though the publication date spread is significantly more impressive this year, too.

Last year over 30 of the books I read were graphic novels, manga, which I read extremely quickly (one can plow through 5 or 6 tankubon in a day, or more) so considering the length and difficulty of my reading this year I am not displeased with 42 books. That said, I miss manga, so expect a little more of that again in the coming year. Once I find my misplaced Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus 3.

And luckily I have my blog to remember things for me. So here are some of my reading highlights from 2013:

  • The Dr. Siri Paiboon mysteries, starting with The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill - Oh, I love this series so far. I love the writing, I love the setting, I adore Dr. Siri, and as my first book of the year this one really got me started on the right foot. Funny, dark, thoughtful, incredibly creative. Very much looking forward to continuing with this series.
  • Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead - The best sort of nonfiction for me: popular science about birds, well-written and totally fascinating. I learned a lot reading this book, and I loved that the whole book was an exercise in showing how scientific knowledge isn't static.
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis - I have bought something like four copies of this book at this point, just because it's so easy to give away to anyone and everyone. It's not very long, but it's beautifully written, plus it's a book about scientists that's also kind of like Office Hours. Funny funny but sometimes a little too close to the bone.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino - Finally introduced myself to Calvino; I've been meaning to read something by him for years. A wonderful little book that is difficult to pigeonhole, but worked for me on many levels. Felt like reading a highly structured piece of music. 
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - Such a wonderful piece of high fantasy, original but comfortable, and with characters that stand out as being some of the most vivid I have encountered lately.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster - A middle-grade classic that I missed out on as a kid, but encountered as a really terrific audiobook as an adult. Highly entertaining, clever, creative, and punny, it isn't perfect but its status as a  modern classic is absolutely earned.
  • Heriot by Margaret Mahy - Another high fantasy work of art. Mahy's writing is always a little unsettling; she had a turn of phrase that was always just a little bit slant. Characters were not her strong suit, but the writing is poetic and startlingly lovely.
  • The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis - I suppose there is a chance I am just including this because it happened to be one of the last books I've read this year so it's fresh in my mind, but I liked it so much I gave it to my Dad for Christmas, so... I love a good mystery, and I love a good set of characters, and this brought an extremely remote historical time to life for me in a way that I love. Looking forward to continuing this series as well.

So once again, the ratio of really excellent reads is quite high this year. October was a bit of a banner month for me; in addition to both Seraphina and The Phantom Tollbooth I finally read Old Man's War by John Scalzi, and The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson, which don't make the list only because I'm trying to keep things manageable. Though October also contained two of my bigger reading disappointments of the year, too. Not sure how I found that much time to read that month, really.

Once again I'll include a list of things I'd like to read in the upcoming year, but my track record here is generally terrible. Though from last year's list I did manage to get three of the seven actually read, and at least two of the others I'm sure to attempt soon. And two of those left were DNF, so actually - way to go, me. Some of the following are book club books, too, which I have started to at least try to finish in time for the book club meetings. I don't always get it done, but I'm trying a lot harder than I ever have. Mostly because never finishing the books I assign starts to get a bit embarrassing.

  • The Inconvenient Indian by Tom King 
  • Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill
  • Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus 3 and 4 by CLAMP
  • The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach
  • Small Gods by Sir Terry Pratchett (yes, this is a repeat from last year's list)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A. McKillip
  • Shadows by Robin McKinley
  • Binny for Short by Hilary McKay
  • The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters
  • The Common Reader Volume 1 by Virginia Woolf

An eclectic mix! Just the way I like it. The length of that list should take me until probably June, the way I've been reading, but let's not think about that...

Thanks again to all of you who read this blog, and all of you who stop by to say hello every once in a while. It's wonderful to be a part of such a special community of book lovers, people who love to read and love to think about what they read, and love reading so much they want to share what they're reading and what they've thought about it. I learn something every time I visit a book blog; thanks for taking the time to read mine this year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

half a decade seems like a long time

And a lot can happen in five years. 337 blog posts, for example. A university degree. A start to a career. A baby. Lots and lots of great books. Lots of interesting, intelligent, creative bloggers to find and read and connect to, too.

Happy birthday blog. I'm glad you're still here, patiently waiting for my updates, as life swirls on around us. I'll keep reading and you keep recording, and on we'll go together, into the wild reading yonder.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
Minotaur Books, 2006 (originally published in 1989)
352 pages

This book has the dubious distinction of (I think) being the book that I have been reading for longest. In that, I started it sometime last year, and took an enormous hiatus, and picked it back up again just about ten days ago because of a conversation I had with a co-worker who is an avid reader. See, my copy here is an ebook, and while this might have been the longest break I have taken with a book, it's not the first time I have stopped reading an ebook somewhere in the middle just by virtue of the fact that a paper book has come along and supplanted it. Even if I'm enjoying the ebook, they seem to somehow take a lower precedence, particularly if I own the book and it isn't going to vanish back into library holdings within a certain number of days.

I picked up The Silver Pigs exactly where I left off. And even while I wasn't reading this book I was thinking about Falco, wondering how he was getting on. (Not well, as it happened: when I left him, he'd just fallen down an old mineshaft, broken his leg, and it was starting to snow.) I have thought about this book almost more regularly than almost any other for the duration of the hiatus, even if I wasn't quite moved to pick up the book again. I remembered exactly where we were, exactly what had happened prior, and even some of the salient names. That said, it was the names just about undid me, coming back. There are a fairly large number of important characters, all with Ancient Roman names, which do have a habit of sounding somewhat similar to this modern-day Canadian.

I have a very weak spot for historical novels that can really bring the past to life for me, that can make the so-called "little people" of history - not the big names that we all know - as real to me as someone living across the street. I have not made my love of Brother Cadfael and his world a secret here. And it looks like I will have to add Marcus Didius Falco to my list of favourite historical private investigators, too. Fans of Ancient Roman history and trivia in particular should take note: Davis has done her homework. She is also the first to admit (in the Introduction to the edition that I read) that she's probably got some things wrong, in the way that it would almost be impossible to avoid, since we are only ever speculating on exactly how day-to-day life was lived by the Romans. In fact, she notes that in some ways the entire premise of this particular book falls apart since the fraud being committed would have been impossible given new information on how the silver pigs were used.

But halt. What, exactly, is The Silver Pigs about? And no. It has nothing to do with pigs.

Marcus Didius Falco is an informer - what one, these days, might call a private eye. But as Falco is living and working in Rome around 70AD, the term "private eye" would be a bit of anachronism. One day, out in the Forum, Falco bumps into a young woman in obvious distress, and being the rather soft-hearted cad he is, he decides on the spur of the moment to help her out. Unfortunately, it appears that the beautiful young Sosia has gotten herself into much deeper trouble than either of them realize, and it eventually falls to Falco to uncover and thwart a plot that strikes at the very heart of the new Emperor Vespasian.

It's a great deal more complicated than that, and it's also a tremendous amount of fun. The story has a vaguely noir feel to it. Falco is certainly verging on a hardboiled detective, with the same curt way of speaking, the same crusty exterior, the same whatever-it-takes attitude, and the same heart of gold that one expects in the [anti]heroes of that genre. There are beautiful women, dangerous men, a loyal sidekick. There's a dark, self-deprecating sense of humour. But Falco also has a family - a mother he is in awe of, though he tries not to show it, a gaggle of sisters, an adored niece. And the setting is unique, and wonderful. Davis has thoroughly fleshed out Ancient Rome and Britania in a way that really does make it almost tangible to a modern-day reader.

Falco was a bit much for me at first. His hardboiled attitude seemed overblown, a little unbelievable. But he grew on me (like a bad rash, he might say.) Also, as I said above, the names were a bit much for me, and not just when I'd taken a break and was coming back. It took some time for characters not Falco to come into focus and sort themselves out into actual people. Once they did, though, they began to leap off the page in the way Falco did.

I've ended this book craving more Falco, and more Ancient Rome. Lucky for me, there are many more Falco books for me to explore. I shouldn't be starting new series at this point; I have so, so many on the go. But this is one I am very glad I started. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, mysteries, and books that do not take themselves too seriously, but just seriously enough.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

by Mary Stewart
Random House, 1991 (originally published in 1988)
188 pages

A book like this is, I think, much better read quickly, rather than in dribs and drabs as I did it. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience; it's just that an enjoyable, pleasant read like this book shouldn't seem quite so slow as it did, and I never developed any sense of urgency about reading it. Nor did the plot develop any sense of urgency, but I think that was just that the reading was so interrupted. That said, it's sometimes very nice to read something that isn't urgent, but potters along at its own pace, and doesn't demand late-night readings.

Melwyk used the phrase "sweet witchiness" to describe Thornyhold, and I quite agree with that lovely choice of words. It is a quiet, simple, sweet story of a young woman, lonely and isolated in her childhood save for a few visits from her mother's kind, fiercely intelligent cousin, and isolated but rather glad of it in her young adulthood too. However, Cousin Geillis has left her goddaughter an unexpected and welcome gift: Thornyhold, a quiet cottage deep in the woods of an old estate, along with a cat, a few pigeons, lots of herbs and medicines, and a few near neighbours. Her closest neighbours are the Trapps, widow Agnes, her son Jessamy, and her mother (known only as Gran). And Agnes seems nice enough, but Gilly is not entirely sure she trusts her. Then there's the boy William, whom loved Geillis dearly and becomes quite attached to Gilly and she to him, and his father, an exceedingly attractive author, who lives in a cottage not far away.

You may see some of where this is going. Probably not all of it; there are little mysteries and twists, but this reader had not a lot of trouble figuring them out well before the protagonist did.

I think the thing I liked best about this book was the setting and the detail; Stewart did not spare when describing Thornyhold, nor indeed any of the settings in the book. In a longer book, the endless description might have felt tedious, but in the little book that Thornyhold is, the description laid the foundations for the story, establishing a certain mood and a certain type of character. Gilly tells the story firsthand; it is her attention to detail that we see. She loves the natural world and animals in particular, and so we pay attention to these things as well. I loved the setting, I loved how vivid it was in my head. I liked the level of detail. I liked that I felt that Gilly Ramsey was leading me around her world by the hand.

The characters, on the other hand, and the relationships in particular, tend to be barely sketched in. Gilly's character progression is pretty shy and retiring, like she is herself. It's hard to have a shy and retiring first-person narrator; she doesn't really want to let anyone in, including the reader. And the relationships, which for me are always the most interesting part of a book, seem... well, they kind of take a simple progression, but I'll admit I found the romance in particular almost too subtle. Stewart's light touch (or is it Gilly's?) is where I lost something by reading this book in such disjointed chunks. I think I would have appreciated the characters, and their interactions, much better if I'd been reading in a more concerted fashion.

I could see reading this again someday when I have more time to devote to it - it would go by in a single afternoon, if I had one. A quiet, simple love story with just a hint of magic and a lot of beautiful scenery.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
by Michael Pollan
Blackstone Audio, 2009 (book originally published in 1991)
8 discs, unabridged

This truly is an excellent book, deserving of the accolades it has received over the years (yes, I can even see how it might be considered "a new literary classic" as the blurb on Goodreads would have it.) It also fits quite nicely into my pattern of waiting until the garden is safely under snow before getting excited about gardening again, usually at the impetus of a book like this. I didn't agree with everything this book offers - I'll get to my objections in a moment - but I loved that I was challenged by it without being shamed, and that I can feel, even at the end, that though I do disagree with at least one of Pollan's fundamental points, this book is still incredibly valuable and powerful and necessary. Perhaps I feel this so strongly even because I disagree with it.

It starts out as a seemingly simple, straightforward gardening memoir, though Pollan tells us right off where we're going, and straightforward gardening memoir is not it. I think I would have enjoyed it even if it had stuck to that. What lifts it above, however, is that Pollan transitions between gardening memoir to philosophical tract to history to manifesto, in and out, often all four things in the same chapter. And while that might sound like an awful lot of weight for a single gardening book to bear, Pollan writes so well that we move seamlessly from philosophy to history to personal anecdote to ethics to practical gardening info without blinking. One rarely feels weighed down, even when Pollan is talking about something as weighty as the history of landscape design in Western culture or the culture of the rose, largely because of the author's enthusiasm for the subject and his wry sense of humour. Pollan is fascinated by each subject he turns his pen to; the reader (or listener, in my case) is drawn along for the ride.

Even though he's very United States-centric (this is fair) and this book was originally published in 1991, I think Pollan's argument that we need a new environmental ethic is a very pertinent one in this decade and particularly in this country. I agree with him that the paradigms we have operated under have failed us as we operate as stewards of this planet. He suggests the "wilderness ethic" that requires complete isolation of wild places, an entirely hands-off approach, a la Thoreau, has lead us to believe that anything that is not untouched wilderness is therefore fair game for development of whatever sort we happen to feel we need, generally things like roads and suburbs. There is no middle ground. He proposes a "garden ethic" as the middle ground, a way towards a "second nature" in which human culture and wild nature can coexist, where the dichotomy of culture vs. nature no longer applies. He argues persuasively that generally gardeners already practice this garden ethic, even if they themselves don't recognize it as such.

Each chapter in the book essentially goes to reinforce this argument in one way or another. I found that the chapter in which he discusses ecological restoration to be particularly edifying; I could clearly and absolutely see his point, and found that I agreed with him more than I thought I did.

Where he did lose me, at first, and where I still disagree with him, is in his interpretation of naturalists and the wilderness. He argues that naturalists are too romantically engaged with the idea of wilderness, are too hands-off, are too anti-culture to accept that some human activity in the wilderness can be a good thing and might be a necessary thing. We are too blindly protective of our wild spaces, even to the detriment of the wild space. (He also suggests, a couple of times, that naturalists are lazy gardeners - this point, I am afraid, at least in my own experience I must concede, though in my grandmother's case I take issue.) He rails against wilderness - non-garden green spaces - as trying to encroach on human space, in fact setting up the sort of dichotomy he speaks against: nature is constantly trying to take back her own, in an indifferent, entropic sort of way. He suggests, in one of the earliest chapters, that no wild forest could ever have taught him as much about nature as his grandfather's garden did as a child.

To this I would suggest that Pollan just didn't have the right teachers, or the right role-models, for understanding how to learn from a wilderness. Were his eyes open to the right sorts of things, a forest has an awful lot to teach, has an incredible amount of value to humans. If you can walk through the forest like I can, and my mother, and my grandmother, and the way my grandfather did, and see and identify birds, and see and identify the various plants, insects, mammal tracks, lichens - if you can do this, you are never at a loss for something to learn. Every walk is different, each minute brings something new. (This is why I cannot really go for a hike for exercise purposes; I stop every few minutes to look at something.) And there is something valuable about going into a place with the mindset that doesn't involve "how do I put my human stamp on this, how do I change it [for the better]." This is not, in contrast to Pollan's suggestions, a lazy way to view nature. In fact, I think for many, it's harder to realize the patient openness of the naturalist's perspective than it is to go in and try to "fix" things.

That said, I get what Pollan is trying to say: that most landscapes, green or wild or otherwise, bear the stamp of human interference, and we'd do better to reconcile ourselves to interfering than to locking nature away to be something we only go visit on weekends, otherwise we're going to lose it entirely. I agree with that, fundamentally. I agree that wildlife management is probably necessary both for human enjoyment and for the good of the species involved. Pollan maybe should acknowledge a little louder that we don't always get it right, with our management techniques - Asian Ladybeetles, anyone? - but on the other hand, I agree too with the premise that basically what we're doing is managing nature in order to keep the planet habitable and pleasant for ourselves. Otherwise we're going to squeeze ourselves right out of this place. And the planet will do just fine once we're gone, keeping on keeping on, in the way it does. Pollan's point of view is unabashedly anthropocentric, whereas I think mine leans a little further towards viewing the species we share the planet with as having a right to exist for their own sake and not just ours, but we share a lot of common ground. In the spirit of his garden ethic, I think there's places to meet in the middle where we can come to compromises that don't devalue either point of view.

The audio is well-produced, though the CD breaks are at weird spots; but maybe it's just me who notices when a chapter starts and then a paragraph later you have to switch the CD? At any rate, Pollan reads the book himself, and is a good reader. It's nice to hear the words spoken the way the author intended them to sound. He's got a dryly humourous, self-deprecating way of reading that I think probably plays up those aspects of the text, and it works really well. Though he's serious about what he's saying, it never devolves into pedantry or self-important schlock. I wondered a time or two if reading the book would have felt like more of a slog than listening did.

As you can tell, lots of fodder for discussion and thought here. You don't have to be a gardener to enjoy this book, but you might find yourself curious to try growing something yourself. And even if you don't think that will ever happen, I think this is a valuable piece of writing as an effort to establish new ground, new ways of thinking and talking about humans and the environment. If it is so ambitious that it sometimes misses its mark, at least it tries. A brave book, and a necessary one.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Dog Who Thought He Was Santa by Bill Wallace

The Dog Who Thought He Was Santa
by Bill Wallace
Aladdin Paperbacks, 2007
184 pages

You may have heard this refrain from me before, but jeebus I really should read the books I pick for kids' book clubs thoroughly before assigning them. Last time it was kind of a lucky break, with Spud. I even started a fad among eleven to thirteen-year-old boys at the local elementary school for reading that series, and got some questions from parents but never any flack.

I was lucky in this case too, or have been so far. Everyone I have talked to has been very understanding, and generally quite positive about the book in general. There were, unless I hear differently, no major disasters or even minor ones.

This is not a bad book. It's pretty reasonable, actually; better, in some ways, than I expected, and it grew on me as a story though the writing is very workmanlike. But the age group that this book is recommended for, that I assigned it to for my parent-child book club, is by-and-large not entirely ready for the "Is Santa real?" discussion. In the past couple of days as I frantically tried to get in touch with the parents in the group to warn them, I was told that most of the kids in my group between the ages of seven to twelve are still believers. (The ones who weren't never were in the first place.) Ten or eleven is not too old to believe in Santa Claus.

In the third chapter, one of the characters, six-year-old Susan, gets into a fight on the playground on the last day of school before Christmas break because one of the other children has told her that Santa isn't real. That was a kick to the gut, because I was Susan. At that age and at that time of year, and in a situation that was almost exactly what she experienced. Apparently I am still traumatized by that experience, as evinced by how abjectly horrified I was when I realized what I'd done after finally reading the entire book myself. I've been told I was really a fair bit more upset than the situation justified. Weird, isn't it, how some things stick with you long past the time when they really should?

It is pretty clear throughout the book that Don, the main character (he is eleven or twelve and Susan's older brother), and Frank, the other main character (he's a dog) and the parents are not believers either. In fact, it's a very touching story about the family rallying around Susan, trying to figure out what she wants from Santa Claus and trying to figure out how to get it for her without tipping her off. In other words, they're trying to keep Susan believing, even just one more year. We, as readers, are privy to this, though it's never stated in so many words.

The book ends very ambiguously: the existence of Santa Claus seems quite probable, in fact, given the ending of the book, which for kids who are already believers will be comforting and ring true. Though one of the believers in the group stated quite clearly that she was sure it was Frank who had saved the day, even if Frank himself quite clearly stated he had nothing to do with it.

Aside from the grief it caused me this book is pretty charming. It starts out slow, but as I said above, it grew on me, because I liked the way the family really did stick together. Mom and Dad are present and accounted for, and supportive as Don and Susan are both starting to deal with their own particular issues. The writing, as above, is workmanlike; it does what it needs to without fanfare and occasionally errs on the side of clunky. But both narrators, Don and Frank, have their own special charm. Frank is surprisingly believable for a very anthropomorphized dog. I shouldn't have bought into his character, but I did.

The challenge for me is who to recommend it to. Knowing what I know now, I would never recommend this book to a kid unless I knew for sure which side of the red-suited-man-line they are on. I would, however, recommend it to parents who are starting to have to answer those difficult questions. Either to read it to get a bit of perspective, or to help them think of how to answer, or to read aloud to gently open those lines of communication. Everyone who came to book club did end up really enjoying the book; we had no dissenters, which is somewhat unusual. Even the believers seem to have found what they needed in the book to confirm their belief, or are at least content to leave the questions lie for now. So, for the right kids, a pleasant, quiet, sweet, often funny Christmas story with a lot of heart and a lot of gentleness.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Coal Dust Kisses by Will Ferguson

Coal Dust Kisses: A Christmas Memoir
by Will Ferguson
Viking Canada, 2010
57 pages

Evidence that science doesn't know everything: Science will tell you that the Northern Lights are silent, cherry blossoms have no scent, and the likelihood of Santa Claus actually existing is low, to say the least.

But in each case I can assert the opposite, just as firmly and with something approaching empirical certainty. For I have heard the Northern Lights, caught the scent of cherry blossoms on the wind, and seen the evidence for Santa Claus firsthand - in the mirror, written on my very skin, a faint but undeniable smudge, Christmas, made manifest.

So begins Will Ferguson's very short and very charming little Christmas memoir. The first thing that struck me was the writing. I've never read anything by Will Ferguson before, though he comes highly recommended by many both for his nonfiction and his fiction. The reputation, if this tiny slice of holiday life is to be trusted, is well-earned. Not only does he write with clarity and gentle humour, his turn of phrase is graceful. His writing feels good to read.

(Or perhaps I am just partial to it because in this little informal piece he uses a lot of parentheses, and we all know how fond I am of parenthetical asides.)

As one might expect from a book that is a scant 57 pages long, there isn't a lot here to write about. I read this with one of my book clubs and we didn't have a lot of discussion on the book itself, though we went a lot of tangential directions from it. Ferguson is talking about Christmases he remembers, tradition, and family; he is drawing a faint arc from his great-grandfather in Cape Breton, west with his grandfather, and around the world with Ferguson himself, then back to Western Canada with his own children. There is, because this is a book about family and tradition, a slight melancholy to accompany the sweet and the gently funny. One gets the impression that Ferguson is working through something, not just writing for the benefit of the holiday reader. Or solely for the benefit of his own boys, though one gets the impression that this is a book written specifically for them and the dedication confirms it.

This is, though, a book that couldn't have been any longer. I didn't really want more. (As one of our members said, "Sometimes I wondered... what's the point of this book?") Well, it's a memoir. It's someone telling stories and making that telling look very easy, writing with an ease that if I know anything about writing is anything but easy. But any longer would have been more than necessary, would have made it less enjoyable and more work to read. Its aim isn't just to entertain, though it does that, nor is it to make the reader think, though it does that too at points. It's a sweet little record, a sharing of something special. You are being let in on the story, allowed to peek through the frosty window, just for a little moment in time.

Enjoyable, not unmissable. If you like a little amusing holiday reading that won't take long (perfect for such a busy time of year, really) go ahead and pick this up. It's liable to make you laugh out loud, and it may make you think about the traditions that surround this time of year, that seem so vital to our own holiday experiences, and how those come about and how those change over time. I will certainly be reading more of Ferguson's work; perhaps one of his travel memoirs next.