A beach read (or if you’re like me, a book you read in the shade in the general proximity to the beach, but more probably far from the beach because of Freckles and Sun and Burns) ought to accomplish a few things: it should be the sort of book that you can read a few pages of and then doze off, wake up and keep reading without entirely losing the thread of the plot; at the same it should be the sort of book that you don’t want to doze off while reading because it should have a compelling plot; it should not pander to your blockbuster whims by delivering candy characters and thematic explosions; at the same time it should not require scrupulous close reading in order to unravel or form an opinion; it should probably involve some elements of the fantastical because you are, after all, on some kind of holiday from your own life when you’re reading a beach read; at the same time, it should include no fantasy at all because you don’t really care for wizards and prefer your drama to come from everyday life (being the sun-sensitive Muggle that you are).
As you may have gathered I’m drafting my 2016 cottage reads list now (which is your invitation to send me your suggestions – post to come before July 17). Had I been drafting the list before reading Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap I’d probably have put it on the list because it fits the bill (though I hardly knew that before I started reading it). So if you’re assembling your own little “what to read while on holiday” list I’d suggest adding Bone Gap to the contenders. Why?
It’s magic realist fiction (and young adult fiction) at its finest in that it marries the imaginative other world of magic and whimsy with the harsh and heartbreaking moments so that you come away rethinking your expectations of relationships. Told from a panoply of perspectives and weaving together greek myth and decollage pop theology, the novel follows two brothers as they sort out love, life without parents (*cough* another orphan young adult fiction novel?!) and the quest (make that Quest) to save a damsel in distress (which turns out to be about saving themselves because this damsel doesn’t need saving thankyouverymuch). It has some bizzare bits with animals, talking corn and small town gossip. It is a delight of Important Themes and bursts of exquisite writing. It’s the sort of book you’re very satisfied to be reading while you’re reading it, and also sure that it won’t trouble you much once you’re done: aka: a perfect beach read.
So there you go. Read Bone Gap or don’t and you probably won’t be better or worse for either. You’ll have a good time if you read it though. And if you have an eleven year old in your life you could safely give it to them and know that you would be the Coolest for doing so (actually there’s a fair bit of mature sexual theme so maybe you’d want to be prepared for your eleven year old to blush or to Not Talk About the Sexy Bits).
Your turn: what should I read this summer? First ten suggestions get serious consideration. Though after the debacle of last summer (and 2014, and 2013) I reserve the right to ignore your suggestions if I deem them ridiculous.
The internet loves Lesley Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. They love the love story. The magic. The mystery of the ending. They love love love this YA novel. It’s enough to fill this reader with despair. How can so many people love a book that is so completely and totally average?
Maybe it’s like every time I’ve ever had a glass of wine with C. and R. I get super excited about the $15 bottle and its smooth taste, because really I can barely tell the difference between red and white. You get me – I’m accusing readers of The Strange and Beautiful as having unrefined tastes. Even though the readers are meant to be young adults who haven’t tasted enough to know what’s good or not. Ohmygoshdidshejustwritethat. Yes. Yes I did. Sometimes you need a trusted sommeli (*cough* let me, like Walton, make my analogy clear: a librarian. a teacher. a well-read friend) to steer you in the right direction. To correct your gushes of enthusiasm for the overly sweet – the gewurztraminer you can’t get enough of, the wine spritzer you claim as life changing.
On the surface this book should be good. It uses magic realism to explore… oh wait, nothing. Babies born with wings and mothers with a magical sense of smell, aunties that turn into canaries. All to suggest – get this – those who are different are sometimes mistreated by the rest of society that doesn’t quite understand difference. An overly pious man who brutalizes a young woman lets us know sometimes religion is hateful. It offers up some beautiful writing and then includes sentences like “death smelled like sadness” and images of women wearing *actual* wedding dresses to signal virginity. And then *actual* dirty wedding dresses to signal sexual awakening. You could defend these trite and surface elements as a consequence of the novels intended young adult audience, but then you’d run up against the inclusion of sexually graphic scenes and vivid moments of violence that – while certainly not to be forbidden the young adult, nevertheless read as intentionally provocative inclusions at best. Add in the underdeveloped and internally inconsistent characters, the absence of any plot conflict worth describing and a thematic depth better described as evaporation and you get… a wildly overrated novel.
Am I being overly arrogant in claiming to know what’s good or not in books? What makes for good value in reading? Sure. But it’s not a matter of taste. Books are not simply neutral objects awaiting the individual preferences of readers (*bracing for onslaught of outrage*). I appreciate different readers will enjoy different things – your Merlot for your Cab Sav – but there are qualitative differences and popularity is not one of them. Trust me?
Since reading Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune at the beginning of the year I resolved to read more of her work. Almost at the same time I agreed to supervise A. in a directed reading on magic realism (pointing out that I have no expertise in magic realism didn’t seem to matter as much as my willingness to do it – further evidence to those counting that enthusiasm trumps knowledge – a fact I insist upon each week at trivia in order to maintain my place on the team).
ANYWAY. The book. The House of the Spirits makes many of the top lists for magic realism because its magic is used to unsettle dominant ideas of class and gender. And because it offers such a pointed (and compelling) feminist view on class conflict. The novel makes the top lists for novels because it is brilliantly written. Okay, you want more? Because it seamlessly shifts in time and character in ways that offer nuance and depth to plot and theme. Because it has beautiful writing and crisp images. Because it captures epic love and historical moments with small moments that are at once pointed and sweeping. I loved it less than Daughter of Fortune (perhaps because it had many similar qualities and I had hoped for the new), but I loved it all the same.
If you read my last post on Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, you’ll know that I’m only happy when protagonists suffer and ultimately end up heartbroken and alone (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but whatever). The House of the Spirits is a perfect example of a conclusion that is at once focused on resolution and on continuation. (I’m not sure continuation is the word I’m looking for, so let me go with this a minute). The ending of The House of the Spirits is excellent both because it concludes the plot sufficiently that readers know where everyone is and probably will be, that we feel the conflict has been addressed and resolved AND because it leaves thematic questions open: paternity (in a book preoccupied with lineage and familial connection), politics and community. It’s a different result than the ending of Gone with the Wind, for instance, that leaves the plot very much unresolved, or the ending of The Illegal, which ties everything together with such a bow that you close the book and forget all about its contents. It’s a resolution of plot with a continuation of theme that makes the story linger and resurface as you read other things (or do the dishes). It’s a way of ending that lets the characters live, but doesn’t torment you with wondering what if and when the sequel will be delivered. It is, in short, an excellent ending.
Taking my own advice I’ll end this post… now.
I’m headed to a dinner party tonight where I will, almost certainly, have to talk about Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. S., who lent me the book, will be there, and so I’ll return it and have to say whether I liked it or not, what I thought of the writing. What do you do when a book recommended is one you just don’t like? I feel like I ought to apologize for not taking the same pleasure she did, or reexamine my own taste for its deficiencies, or pretend to have liked it more than I did.
Alas. I thought Mister Sandman was just okay. In short: It’s a book about the disparity between ‘true’ selves and what we reveal to those we love. The secrets we keep from our partners and children; the secrets we keep from ourselves. The reverberations of these secrets are detected by the changeling child of the family, Joan, who, because she is ‘brain damaged’ and assumed to be mute, absorbs (and records) the secrets she hears, only to echo them back in (magical) and transformative ways. No question the novel is inventive in form and in some language. There’s a playfulness and humour that underlines the ‘heavy’ themes of betrayal, self-awareness, sexual awakening and identity.
And yet I didn’t care much about what happened to any of the characters or if they were ‘found out’ for who they really are/want to be. This lack of care wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate their specificity, rather I found that the opacity they present to the world (and in many instances, to themselves) made it a challenge – if not an impossibility – to connect or empathize with any of them myself. Moreover the characters – while undergoing significant ‘change’ in plot and experience – do little to evolve in their temperament or approach to one another. It’s as though the significant changes happen at them and around them, rather that to them in a way that might transform, complicate or enrich them (and so the reader’s understanding of who they are and their connection to us).
The particular book aside, as I read more books recommended, or review copies, I’m beginning to think this blog – or my thoughts – ought to move past the ‘did I like it’ / ‘didn’t I like it’ binary (thus sparing me the discomfort of having to publicly declare whether I liked a book recommended, when I could, instead, just talk about images of grass and angels). It’s tiresome to write (and so I suspect tiresome to read) the reasons why I liked or didn’t like a book (maybe). What to do instead? Close reading of passages? Exploration of themes? Discuss.