Category Archives: Books

#3: The Tale of Despereaux (by Kate DiCamillio)

DespereauxThere’s a lot lot LOT of childrens’ literature out there, and a lot lot LOT of it is very, very bad. My love for books began when I was just a wee little reader, and I plowed through as much crap (Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley Twins) as I did quality (Madeline L’engle, Bunnicula (yes? anyone??), E.B. White). In the subsequent generations of kids books there have been an equal share of substance and fluff, and though I don’t have kids or really know very many kids I’ve still retained a love for and a curiosity about what’s going on in the world of youth literature. And, man, I can still really get sucked in. All six Harry Potters had me up late, feverish, red-eyed, metaphorical flashlight under metaphorical covers, too tired to stay awake at work.

This brings us to The Tale of Despereaux, a story of a smaller than average mouse with larger than average ears and exceedingly big, un-mousey dreams. It’s not a lightweight story. Our hero exists in an unsympathetic, vaguely British medieval land where soup has been outlawed and only outlaws carry soup spoons. He is the only survivor of his litter of baby mice, which inspires his melodramatic (and apparently, French) mother to name him Despereaux “for all the sadness, for the many despairs of this place”. His older siblings are called Furlough and Merlot. Har har. Another of our protagonists is a witless servant girl, sold by her father in exchange for a tablecloth, cauliflower-eared and half-deaf from frequent blows to the head. The whole tale is shot through with veins of humorous darkness like this, which helps the story transcend its cutesy premise and simple plotting and climb into some greater truths. DiCamillo even says it herself: ” Stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself) cannot always be sweetness and light.”

The balance between light and dark is the major theme that drives this story. Another of our characters is a castle dungeon-inhabiting rat named Chiaroscuro (an Italian word meaning light mixed with darkness, “look it up”, prompts the author) who is fascinated by the idea of light, having only seen it once in his short ratty life. His striving for the world above leads him down an even darker path than that on which he started, bringing us to another strength of DiCamillo’s storytelling: her characterizations. All are fleshed with an even hand: our wise narrator assures us of their failings as well as their triumphs, of the dark pockets in their hearts as well as the lights of hope burning in their souls. No hero is without his foibles, no villain without her potential for redemption.

As young adult books go, this one wins. It’s a stock fairytale, but one grounded in realism. That, coupled with large swaths of black humor and the occasional educational tidbit make this one more than worthy of its gold Newberry Medal.

#2: Rock Bottom (by Michael Shilling)

51ieqjgpttl_ss500_2I sort of know the guy who wrote this, at least inasmuch as he comes into our bookstore all the  time to browse. We chat and crack wise, and he usually buys something, so I’ve labeled him in my head as one of our “nice” customers, and therefore a local author whose writing is potentially worth my attention. Never let it be said that I am an impartial critic, because I ain’t.  Be nice to me, I read your books.

But whatever, I’d be predisposed toward this book regardless because it is about music and being in a band and going on tour and that’s all stuff I do, and I’m, you know, SUPER into my own scene. Plus, the jacket design is alarmingly (and I’ve got to assume, intentionally) similar to the cut-and-paste rock n roll flier aesthetic of Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil’s ridiculously cool compendium of punk history.

Rock Bottom covers one day in the life of “ironic” L.A. cock-rock outfit Blood Orphans (awesome band name? yes). It is 2004, they are in Amsterdam, and it is the last day of their enormously unsuccessful European tour. The band has not fared well: bad press, worse PR, arrests, riots and abysmal album sales have fueled the fires of personal and professional resentment and now all of them – the sex-addicted drummer, the talentless eczema-plagued bass player, the proselytizing lead singer, the cringing doormat of a guitarist – hate each other. On top of that, their manager (a tiny blonde dervish described on the flyleaf as “heroically coked out”) has flown in from the states to try to salvage whatever remains of her integrity and her boys’ careers.

The book could have easily been kind of bad, it could have ridden on stereotype and shock value, but thankfully it’s not and it doesn’t. The writing is sharp and bawdy, the pacing quick and the characters equal parts sympathetic and maddening, sort of like those drug and drink addled friends you can’t help but love, even as they are driving you insane by skipping out on their bar tabs or starting fights with strangers. Everyone’s a fuckup, but in equal measure, and ultimately our flaws make us all brethren.

Which is actually almost exactly like being in a band.

#1: Fault Lines (by Nancy Huston)

mccarthur-fault-lines_02

I’m going to kick off by cheating juuuuust a little bit, with a novel I finished over Christmas, despite having started it back in October. There were multiple reasons for this, but mostly it was because I had initially barreled my way through about 200 pages before forcing myself to take a timeout because I was, wait for it, scared of the ending. Yep. I had to put the book in the metaphorical freezer.

Anyway.

Fault Lines starts off pretty arrestingly with the introduction of our first narrator (one of four), a fairly horrifying child named Sol. Sol is wildly precocious beyond his six years, pampered within an inch of his life and wholly convinced of his own messianic potential. He is a small monster, an entitled, zealous product of the information age. “I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide Web…no one has the vaguest notion of the brilliance, the radiance, the fabulous radioactivity in my brain that will one day transform and heal the universe.” Did I mention he also sneaks onto his mother’s computer and sexually excites himself with images of dead Iraqi soldiers?

Sol has a large mole on his temple, a congenital roving birthmark which also marred the childhoods of his father, grandmother and great-grandmother. He believes his mark is a talisman, indicative of a larger destiny. As it turns out, the mark has also proven to be very important in the lives of those in his family who share it, and as Sol’s chapter ends his father Randall’s begins, the story zooming out twenty-two years earlier when Randall was also six years old. Randall’s story then leads into his mother Sadie’s, and Sadie’s into the final story of her own mother’s childhood, where at last the full dark significance of the birthmark is revealed.

Huston’s writing is spectacular here, and the translation must be remarkable because I certainly couldn’t tell the book had ever been intended to be in any language other than English. She divulges her clues slowly, piecemeal, offering tantalizing glimpses behind the curtain but never a view at the full picture. The reverse narrative, Huston’s method of pulling back, snapping into focus and then pulling back again is an incredibly effective device, as is her usage of six-year olds to tell the tale. The children build the story by deconstructing it into its tiniest pieces, and their fragmentary observations when placed all together are as illuminating as they are heartbreaking. Beautifully realized, poetic and emotionally rending without being the remotest bit sappy, I could not possibly recommend this novel enough.

Okay. Off to a good start. 99 more to go.