wouldn’t trade him for anything

So what would you do if you woke up in a strange room, in a strange apartment, and in a strange body? How do you convince people that you are you, not the guy whose face you’re wearing? And what do you do when you realize that almost no one knows you well enough to be convinced?  That’s what happens to Max Trader. He is a boutique instrument-maker who has no family and whose only friend is a 13-year-old neighbor (who believes him, but freaks out because she thinks her mother has been ‘taken’ as well).  And of course, the guy who switched bodies with him is not a nice guy – duh! What do you do when the world yanks the rug out from under you, when suddenly anything – good and bad – is possible?  These are the questions posed by Trader, written by Charles de Lint.

In the realm of favorite authors, there are still degrees of favorite-ness to be delineated.  On the short list of authors for whom I have a hard time finding the words to convey how much I appreciate their existence and contribution to my world, Charles de Lint is in the top 5.  This is not a formal list, you understand.  I don’t feel the need to assign a rank to each and place them above or below each other. Each is unique and cherished for different reasons, and I find all that grading and assigning of privilege annoying and counter-productive. (Others on the list include Barbara Kingsolver, Tom Robbins, Louise Erdrich, Terry Pratchett and Virginia Woolf.) So when I tell you that Charles de Lint is a favorite of mine, what I mean is that if you were to ask me the name of one author that you should read and enjoy in your lifetime, Charles de Lint is likely who I would mention.  He is probably the least-known of my ultimate favorites.

It all started (for Bev) long, long ago in a galaxy known as Title Wave.  My friend, Deb Day, and I both read a lot and often trade books.  She was looking for something to read in the sci-fi section of Title Wave, and saw a book called Someplace to be Flying, sky blue with a black feather on the spine.  That was all she could see, but it drew her attention enough for her to pick it up – and the rest is history.  That book knocked us both out and I have since bought a dozen or more copies as gifts for other people.  Her and I have since devoured everything he’s written, collecting them and re-reading our favorites.  Thankfully, Title Wave gave us a steady supply of new and old de Lint, they must have known we were in need.  And the municipal libraries in Anchorage also had copies of many of his stories – often filed under Youth Fiction.  And while I won’t say that every book he’s written is a 10, de Lint’s got more hits on his roster than most, and several books on my default, read-again-when-you-have-nothing-new-or-because-you-need-a-reason-to-live list. Trader is not one of my uber-faves, but I only recently purchased it, so it was time to read it again.

Many of de Lint’s novels and short stories (and all of my favorites) fall into the category of Urban Fantasy.  The setting is current era (right now, could be your street or town) but the story is anything but ordinary.  The reinventing of Native spirits, fairies, hobgoblins and other creation myths and fairy tales often comprise a significant part of the plot and setting.  In Trader, for example, two men’s minds are exchanged between their bodies.  There is a lot going on—trips to the spiritworld, jilted girlfriends, Coyote relatives, artist/waitresses, mother-daughter relations, soul eaters and more – but the theme is about living your life and owning your decisions.  And important questions like: What makes you who you are – how you look or the actions you take?  Is it random luck or karma that determines your fate?  One of the things I adore about de Lint is that there is always a higher purpose – he doesn’t just write fun fantasy books, he wants you to think about your own life. He wants to interrogate the world we live in and believes that we can change it for the better with everything we do.  Anyone who has read de Lint will probably recognize several of the minor characters in Trader (such as Jilly and Joe Crazy Dog).  I personally love it when an author uses the same city and setting to tell separate stories that add up to a whole world of people and events.

If you want to read de Lint at his best, pick up StbF, Forests of the Heart, Spirits in the Wires or Memory & Dream. Now I have to go read StbF… it’s been at least a year.  Charles de Lint needs to live to be a hundred and write me 50 more books.  I don’t ask for much…

not-so-swept Away

I’ve seen the book Away by Amy Bloom many times on my frequent trips to various book stores (I notice the book because one of my favorite books is also called Away, written by Jane Urquhart) but I finally picked it up at Powell’s for $5 after reading the back (it said the heroine treks from New York to Alaska – gotta go w/the Alaska book).  This is my first book by Bloom.

Away is the story of Lillian Lyeb, a Jewish survivor of the pogroms during the Russian Civil War in the early 1900s. Her entire family is killed in front of her, including (she believes) her young daughter.  She does what she must to get by as an immigrant in New York until a cousin comes to convince her that her daughter is still alive in Russia. Lillian discovers just how bad things can really get when she tries to arrange a trip back to Russia to find her daughter.  Everyone thinks she’s crazy, and the things she has to do to get anywhere are far from pleasant.

This is not a happy book.  The writing is vivid and the plot moves along nicely, but in the end, I wondered what the point was.  Lillian has gone through horrific experiences – which we live along with her – and in the end she gives up on the only goal – beyond survival – she ever had for no apparent reason other than exhaustion and the bird in the hand.   I am a huge fan of the non-linear plot line, the lack of closure, the virtually plotless novel, the unhappy ending, and just about any other post-modern format or device out there.  But a lack of plot closure should not make a pointless novel.  She almost kills herself several times to get to Russia, and then just… stops in Alaska.

Am I supposed to assume that, because she found a man she cares for – I think love is too strong a word – that Lillian doesn’t need to even find out if her daughter is alive and safe anymore?  That cannot be it.  Maybe I’m supposed to believe that – because there is serious doubt that the cousin was even telling the truth about the child, that Lillian just quits when she finally finds a place she can be even a little happy? That one sucks, too. The reader finds out that the daughter is indeed alive and safe with a different family, but Lillian never does.  I’m sorry, but that SUCKS as an ending.  And it’s not even a ‘hey, I’m never going to get there, I’m never going to know, so I must try to live my life but I’ll always wonder’ kind of ending.  It’s more like ‘I worked and walked and did terribly things and walked some more and froze and starved and now… I think I’ll stop here, after I’ve crossed the entire North American continent and am almost to Siberia.’  Not cool.  I feel like I’ve suffered along with her, and for nothing.

Also – and I know this is totally nit-picky, but I can’t stand it when writers get the details wrong – moose do not run in packs.  Ever.  10 moose traveling together?  Not happening.

I will probably give Ms. Bloom another shot, because the writing was indeed enjoyable.  And I don’t need a happy ending, just an ending that doesn’t make me regret finishing the book.

I could drink a case of this…

I ‘discovered’ Joanne Harris after seeing (and loving) the movie Chocolat (a favorite of mine with an incredible cast: Juliet Binoche, Carrie-Anne Moss, Alfred Molina, Dame Judie Dench and the ever-fabulous Johnny Depp).  Of course I took note of the fact that it was based on a book and went looking for other books by Harris.  I read Five Quarters of an Orange a few years later and was also impressed, so I added Harris to the list in my head.  I was at Powell’s a few weeks ago with $40 in birthday money, and Blackberry Wine was on sale for $5, so it quickly went into the basket – I didn’t even read the back.

Blackberry Wine is the story of a writer who’s drinking his life away after his first book succeeds wildly and he can’t follow it up.  It takes a ghost from the past (both literally and figuratively) to wake him up to his life.  It’s about listening to your conscience and not judging people.  It’s also a book about the pleasures of life in a rural setting, connected to the land and the people who live and work with it.  And all of that without a moment of preachiness or insulin shock.  The other two stories I’ve read featured strong female lead characters, and – while this main character is a man – the book has its share of confident females. Sounds perfect to me.

For those of you that don’t like stories that jump around in time, this book is not for you (and why on earth are you reading this blog?!).  The changes are clearly marked and easy to follow (at least IMHO) but you see Jay as an adult then a child and back again many times but at no time is the story confusing or unclear.  This is not to criticize, merely to comment on the style [there are otherwise intelligent people in my life (Sista) that hate the non-linear style].  Some of the characters in Chocolat appear as minor characters in this book, but you certainly do not need to have seen or read Chocolat to follow the story.

One of the things that impresses me about Harris’s writing is her ability to create atmosphere. She is a master of the ‘show, don’t tell’ theory of writing (which may be why the film of Chocolat works so well – film is all show.  Of course, I should probably read the book before talking about how well the book works as a film, huh?).  She conjures anger, revulsion, joy and promise without a sour note.  You smell and taste her stories as much as you hear them (the three I’ve read/seen have food as an important element of the story – hence their titles).  I like how she gives you the details of plants and gardening/farming (since I know nothing about these things) and doesn’t beat you over the head with her theme (not original, but still well-done) that we reap what we sow – call it karma or quantum physics if you like.  And of course, one of my personal favorite ideals – we are all responsible for our choices, and every day we can chose something new if we want to change our lives.  Simple – yes. Easy – of course not.  All of this wrapped up in a package I didn’t want to put down.  Lucky for me, I was stuck on a plane to Alaska and had three uninterrupted hours to enjoy it.

Blinking is a good thing…

We’ve all had times when we knew something before we had a ‘good’ reason to know it.  You have a funny feeling something is about to happen, or known a person was up to no good before they’ve done anything wrong.   In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells us how this happens, as well as why a snap judgment can be as dependable as a well-considered decision, and sometimes better.

Using everything from art forgeries to Pentagon war games to divorce counseling, Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Outliers) builds a convincing case for the snap judgment.  He uses scientific studies and front-page news stories to demonstrate how the brain is not just getting lucky, but processing information (speed dating)  without needing us to be involved.   And how this system – which is calls the adaptive unconscious – can be derailed by stress and other factors to become a liability (cops shooting innocent bystanders).

This book peaked my interest the first time I heard about it.  Psychology has always fascinated me – I want to know why people do the things they do.  This book discusses how a part of the brain can make decisions based on information that people are not even aware they have acquired.  It was a quick read (I read it on the plane from Anchorage to Portland) and well-written.  Gladwell keeps things interesting with tons of real-life examples to illustrate what could be boring scientific research.  You wouldn’t think that orchestral auditions, secluded Amazon tribes and the O.J. Simpson trial to could all be used to illustrate his point – under the right conditions, the brain can be trusted to do amazing things without our well-reasoned (and sometimes interfering) help.

One of the points I found interesting was the fact that – when pressed to come up with an explanation for why they did a particular thing or knew something they didn’t realize they knew, people would make up a story for why they did it. Gladwell calls it the ‘storytelling problem’ (and we all know people with this problem, don’t we?).  We aren’t comfortable with the fact that we don’t consciously know why we do things, so we come up with an explanation.  And in some cases, if we are pressed to explain what we know, we know a lot less (I know that sounds confusing – but read the book and it’ll all make sense).  Of course, when others then take these explanations and run with them… well, it’s the blind leading the blind (New Coke).  My ex-husband was always pushing for explanations for the crazy things our son would do when he was younger (and even now =).  But I have come to realize – and this book only reinforces my conviction – that sometimes there is no ‘why’ for what we do.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time” covers all manner of ills.  And now I have evidence that says that’s not always a bad thing.

Population: fantastic

I have lately become a fan of memoirs – recently popularized by writers such as Augusten Burroughs and David SedarisBarbara Kingsolver wrote a kind of garden memoir in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I loved, and Rebecca Walker wrote a powerful childhood memoir titled Black White Jewish.  So I have been paying more attention to this kind of book, and when I heard about Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, I put in on hold at the library. (I try not to buy every book that looks half-way interesting, keeps me from running out of gas money every week).  I have know a few people who are volunteer fire and rescue folk – and most of them live in small towns – so I thought a writer’s view of the experience might be interesting.  And since the blurb says he had recently moved back to his hometown before joining its volunteer crew, there seemed to be all kinds of potential for great story-telling.  And this book did indeed deliver.

Being a person prone to introspection, the memoir genre allows me to watch others ruminate about their own thoughts and reactions to the events in their lives.  Not all memoirs are created equal, of course, and different lives result in very different books.  Population: 485 is less navel-gazing that the average memoir, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Michael Perry is from Wisconsin and spent some time ‘cowboying’ in Wyoming (says the blurb on the book), so this is not the story of an urban man and his neuroses, but a small-town boy returning to that small town after seeing the world – and happy to be doing so.

Perry does a great job of connecting himself and the folks around him to the landscape – in a way that resonates on a very basic level – and reminds me of my own trips back to the small town I grew up in.  When he goes running, he relives the myriad events of his childhood that occurred on each particular street and corner, overlaid by the fire and rescue calls of adulthood.  So one street may be where he received a scar as a young, rough-playing boy, the next a house where he wasn’t able to save an elderly man after a heart attack.  Each is treated with vivid detail and adept delicacy.  These are not the essays of a hero in his own mind, but a man humbled by the trust placed in him by his community.  And someone who knows that laughing at your own screw-ups is the only way to keep your sanity when life throws you a curve.

As I hurry to finish this book before I need to return it to the library (thinking phrases like ‘the writing isn’t great but is good, author really gives you a sense of what the experience of fire and rescue is like for him’), I had almost decide that it was a decent book but nothing outstanding.  But that was before it made me cry, and then made me bawl like a baby.  I’m sure it won’t have that effect on everyone.  But Perry clearly understand grief and has the chops to make you feel it if you have any inclination towards visceral empathy.

When he describes the quiet grief of a man – a stranger to him – who has lost a child, I teared up.  I have a child, and Perry’s gentle descriptions were heartbreaking without a hint of being over-wrought.  But it was the passages regarding the loss of his young sister-in-law that make it impossible for me to see the words on the page (both his as I read and these as I attempt to write them).

My sister lost her husband to a drunk-driving accident 3 and ½ years ago, and the picture this man paints – of a husband who responds to an accident scene where his new wife has been hit, how his mother is there performing CPR as his brother blows air into his own wife’s injured lungs, how they are surrounded by the friends and family who make up the volunteer crew, and later the professionals arrive and pronounce her dead there on the soil they both spent their lives on – these are some of the most heart-breaking and emotionally charged sentences I’ve ever read. I admit, my situation makes them more personal to me, but this is a book that brings life – and death – remarkably up close and personal.

I would not characterize this book as a tear-jerker (though it made me cry) or a comic story (though it made me laugh).  This book does what the best stories – whether so-called non-fiction or the truly fictitious – do so well, put all the experiences of one life into words that allow us to recognize our own. I wouldn’t call him a favorite author after only one book, but I will certainly be checking out his other books to see if they measure up to this one.