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Fri, Jun. 10th, 2005, 05:31 pm
Reading Roundup, April 2005

Whoo, thanks to finals this puppy's been pretty delayed. Still, April was kind of a spectactular reading month, so I didn't just want to skip it. I'm not quite sure how I managed to get through all these pages without failing out of school, particularly since I don't seem to have actually listed any school reading on the list. Nevertheless, enjoy these suggestions!

The gem: No, I'd never heard of Etgar Keret before picking up The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God, but now that I've read his work, I can't imagine why not. His stories are tiny (few are longer than three pages) but luminous, witty and occasionally heartbreaking. In fact, the single longer piece in the book is probably the weakest; Keret's got a knack for the one-two punch of detail-reversal, detail-reversal that just doesn't hold up particularly well in the long term. Still, his glorious invention takes you from Egypt, circa the Plague of the Firstborn, to a middle-school classroom to a village built over the mouth of Hell. Highly recommended.

The wanna-be gem: I still think that Kevin Brockmeier may have written my favorite short story ever (go read "The Brief History of the Dead," already!), but his first collection, Things that Fall from the Sky, was a bit of a disappointment. I could tell that he was trying for the same brief, luminous wit that Keret manages (for example, one story imagines the interior of an airplane as an eternal, self-perpetuating world) but he can't quite handle it. Brockmeier is at his best when dealing with subtle grief, as in "These Hands." If he can learn to apply the same razor-sharp emotional intelligence to the stories where he tries to be witty, he'll improve them a dozen-fold. Given that this was his first work, though, I imagine he'll only get better. In fact, given "The Brief History of the Dead," I imagine he has.

The life-changer: There's no question that books have changed my life, but it's rare that I'm able to pinpoint exactly which book, when I read it, and what it did for me. Anna Fels' Necessary Dreams, though, was such a remarkable book that I don't need to wait for the retrospective. This incisive work explores ambition as a human trait. Ambition is a natural drive, argues psychologist Fels, and plays a significant role in internal behavior such as learning, as well as in external social relationships. Women, however, have their ambition stamped on in large and small ways, and Fels argues that this is at the root of women's continued difficulties in the modern world. Even more impressive, she manages to do with without vilifying society or victimizing women. Although this book is not meant to be a self-help book, if you are a woman, you will not be able to read this without looking at your own ambitions (and your attitude toward ambition!) with a very keen eye. Extraordinary.

The author I've been avoiding: The problem with having a little OCD problem when it comes to books is that one tends to avoid the ouvres of particularly prolific authors. After all, how do you know where to start? Now, of course, I'm kicking myself, because I've fallen in love with Anthony Trollope and I don't know why I waited so long. The Way We Live Now is one of those big, sprawling Victorian novels which feature virtuous heroines, comic minor characters, financial skullduggery, etcetera. (Hello, Dickens!) Trollope manages, though, to combine that sort of plot with a tenderness for his complicated and very human characters. While some of the cast are reduced to comic turns or simple villains, the majority of the players on Trollope's stage are recognizable in oneself, even as they twist and turn on the hook of the extraordinarily gripping plotline. I'm definitely going to be hunting down more works by this guy, even if I still don't quite know where to start!

The polemic: I don't think that Neil Postman would like to hear The Disappearance of Childhood referred to as a polemic, but at some level that's precisely what it is. Still, it's a thoughtful, well-researched and carefully argued one, and its historical and theoretical/critical elements are not to be missed. In (very) brief, Postman argues that the differences between adulthood and childhood came about with the rise of literacy. He therefore links the rise of the visual/oral element in our modern society with other cultural trends, particularly the infantilization of adults and the way that childhood is, well, disappearing. I'm not sure that I entirely agree with his argument, particularly as he seems to forget that while literacy is a skill, computer literacy is perhaps just as difficult to acquire and can be considered a similar marker between adults and children even if we all forgot how to read tomorrow - but a lot of what he says is very smart, and he's very entertaining while saying it.

The charmer: This one was a reread (hey! it was a stressful month), but Joan Aiken's A Necklace of Raindrops never disappoints. These fairy tales effortlessly jump back and forth between the modern and the traditional. A schoolbus becomes a magical home in the sky; a young girl is given a necklace of raindrops, and corresponding magical powers, by her godfather the North Wind. If you can find the version illustrated by Jan Pienkowski, I highly recommend it. His magical illustrations - silhouettes against gorgeous washes of color - make the stories come even more alive.

The favorite: I'd read Sabriel and its sequel Lirael perhaps two years ago, but the final book of the trilogy, Abhorsen was not yet out. When it came time to read Abhorsen, I took the opportunity to re-read the first two for maximum trilogy-enjoyment. Sabriel remains among my favorite books of all time, though I found that the following duology wasn't quite as good. The setting remained supremely excellent: imagine if there were a magical kingdom on the other side of Hadrian's Wall, and modern England had to deal with its rather uncomfortable neighbor. However, Sabriel was such a fantastic main character that it was pretty much impossible for the later heroes to live up to her. Still, the later books have some extraordinary sequences in their own right, and blow most other modern fantasy novels out of the water. Extraordinary.

May's roundup will be coming soon!

Fri, Jun. 10th, 2005 10:22 pm (UTC)
psychick

I agree that the first book of the Nix series is amazing, and that I was somewhat disappointed with the second two. In a world where your main characters have a LOT of instinctual knowledge of how to do things (occasionally prodded by a magical sidekick), having too many main characters takes away a great deal of the suspense of the books.

One gets the feeling that the first was written to leave the door open for a possible sequel, but without the necessity of them. The second two have no such independance, and seem to cling to each other and hang off of Sabriel's coat-tails.

It was nice to learn more about the world in the later books, though I think that Nix focuses too much on his main characters and could do with a little more fleshing out of his setting. It wasn't so bad in the first book, but as the characters travel about and spread through the world in the later books, the lack of world-building becomes more apparent. We know that the Old Kingdom is, well, a kingdom and that it has courts and castles appropriate thereof, but there is no sense of any kind of political maneuvering more complex than deciding who will sit next to who at the feast tomorrow. On the other hand, we have "the real world" on the other side of the wall, which clearly has complex politics, all of which are simply hinted at through hearsay. The lands have standard seasons, standard trees, standard animals, standard officers and standard peasants, all of which are so standard that Nix doesn't bother describing them at all. The result is that the world ends up being pretty flat, really. "All this is unimportant. You need only worry about the main characters and what they are doing, not where they are doing it."

Anyway, I ramble. I only do so because I liked the first one very much.

Fri, Jun. 10th, 2005 11:07 pm (UTC)
hakamadare

all of which are so standard that Nix doesn’t bother describing them at all

curious! i came away with the distinct impression that Ancestierre maps quite accurately to WWII-era England, which is a cultural milieu with which i am sufficiently familiar that it really didn’t need much explanation, but that might just have been an assumption i made.

i must say, i can’t remember the last book that made me so intensely want to live in the world of that book.

-steve

Fri, Jun. 10th, 2005 10:57 pm (UTC)
hakamadare

Sabriel was such a fantastic main character that it was pretty much impossible for the later heroes to live up to her

hm, that wasn’t a problem i had (though i suppose it may be because i still find it impossible not to visualise Lirael as Jessica (the other one, not you))

-steve

Wed, Aug. 3rd, 2005 03:46 am (UTC)
indymag

We'll be publishing Etgar Keret's graphic novel "Pizzeria Kamikaze" collaboration with Asaf Hanuka in English for November.