Me + World: The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris

I’ve read some really great books lately and have been keeping them mostly to myself.  Today, the selfishness ends!

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris (whom I’ve slathered much love on here and here) is the next chapter of the story of Vianne and Anouk Rocher from Chocolat (the book, of course, not the film, though the stories are close enough that film-goers would enjoy it, I think).   It is every bit as wonderful as Harris’s best stuff.

It’s five years since we’ve been in Lansquenet and things are very different for Vianne. She’s given birth to a second child (Rosette) and has consented to marry a man she does not love.  She’s hiding from the world instead of trying to bring magic to it. Anouk is entering puberty afraid of herself, the magic inside her and the world around her, and wishes her mother was the woman she used to be.  Enter Zozie.

Zozie is everything Vianne used to be, but without the compassion and kindness. She is cool and interesting and not afraid to attract attention. She sees the potential in Anouk and wants it for her own selfish reasons. But in truth, she’s hiding even more than Vianne is – from herself more than anyone.

Harris’s writing is stellar, as always. The copy I have is the P.S. version, with interviews and background material, and I read every bit so I could live with the book and characters a little longer. I was visiting my sister and her family in the wilds of Northwest Montana and read it by flashlight in my tent, surrounded by the sounds of horses grazing around (and sometimes underneath) my tent late at night. The strange surroundings only added to the feeling that I was really in another world, living with Anouk and the others in Paris.

I’m not sure I can articulate what it is I love about Harris. It’s the same thing I love about a lot of authors, who write a lot of different stuff (Miéville, Chabon, De Lint, Shields, Kingsolver). Her works speaks of truths I knew but hadn’t recognized. Her characters are people I’ve been, or met, or would like to meet. I feel as if I know myself better at the end of the book than I did at the beginning. Her writing has a beauty apart from the meaning of the words. Her work helps me feel more strongly connected to the world.

It’s hard to turn the last page, sometimes, and let that go.


What I Read in May – Part Uno

Yes, I know. It’s July – practically August – and I’m just getting to What I Read in May. But it is still July, and I intend to get June done before August as well. And maybe if I just do a little blurb on each of these books, I can stop feeling so behind (or not).

I’ve broken May into two parts – Neil Gaiman and Not Neil Gaiman. I’ll give you the Not while I’m finishing up the other.  Even a short blurb on 16 books was getting a bit long, and some turned out to be not-so-short.

The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek. Discussed here. Loved it.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Discussed here. Liked it a lot. Can’t really see Julia Roberts playing her, but that’s cool. Glad I read it already.

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull. I like to encourage kids to read, so when my friend’s son was excited about this book and wanted me to read it, I gave it a shot. Unfortunately, some children’s books are great books that happen to be read by children (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia) and some are just children’s books. I got bored pretty quickly, so I didn’t finish it. Turns out, the boy didn’t finish it either! Guess he was more excited talking about it that actually reading it.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I read this one because a) I loved the movie and b) I have since liked everything else I’ve read by Harris and c) I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about the book, not just the film. The book is a little different in tone and detail from the film (the romance is less prominent in the book, the Comte and Vienne both more nuanced) but I felt like the film was a faithful representation of the story here.  Love Harris.

Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Hilary & Steven Rose. I read an article/editorial in the New York Times (I think) by Hilary Rose, and that’s where I heard about this book. It is really aimed at scientists in the fields of Psychology, Sociology and Biology, so it was a big of a slog at times. Their purpose was to refute the recent trend to discuss evolutionary psychology as a science, when really what’s being talked about most is more of a simplistic metaphor to help explain behavior. What is useful as a heuristic is being presented as scientifically-based – and the scientists in this book would like those people to knock it off. Much of it was interesting, but I didn’t retain much.

Alabaster by Caitlan R Kiernan. Discussed here. Loved this one.

Cemetery Road by Gar Anthony Haywood. This is a book I picked up at the PLA convention (same source as The Lonely Polygamist). I’ll confess – I mostly picked it up because I met the author briefly, and he was nice and very attractive. The book is a suspense/detective kind of thing. I started off not terribly impressed – and then realized it was 5am and I’d finished it. A short, fast read, in which the main character knows more than he’s telling us as he tries to figure out the strange death of a childhood friend. I was never bored, and I bore easily. In my notes, I called it ‘deceptively seductive.’

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. A great book about how ignoring painful truths is (duh) counter-productive. This one will get its own post. No really, I’m not just saying that.

Father of the Rain by Lily King. I reviewed this book for BookBrowse, loved it. Similar to The Summer We Fell Apart, it is the story of a charismatic, alcoholic father from the viewpoint of his 11-year-old daughter. It follows her until she’s an adult with a family of her own, as she tries to rid herself of the pain and learn new ways to trust people. The writing is fabulous, the details ring true, and I just wanted to reach into the book and give that girl a hug.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and Between, Georgia, both by Joshilyn Jackson. Both of these I listened to as audiobooks.  I found Jackson last year at my sister’s house – she had gods of Alabama, and then I found Between, Georgia on a sale rack. Jackson has a clear voice and a talent for description that makes her characters vibrant, interesting and convincingly human. I listened to The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, on a road trip a few months ago and was even more impressed with this third novel – and the audiobooks are read by the author, who is a great reader. All three books take place in modern-day southern United States, with a female protagonist that feels like a neighbor you’d like to be friends with. All three focus on the pains and joys of families with skeletons in the closet that just won’t stop rattling. I’ve got her new one, Backseat Saints, on hold at the library.

There was much to love this month – which is probably why I got through 16 (well, 15 ¼)  books, some of them pretty long. Up next, Neil Gaiman in May, then What I Read in June. Stay tuned.

A few words about a few books

These are all books by authors I’ve previously reviewed and loved and gushed on and on about, so I thought I’d spare us all the embarrassment and just give you a quick blurb, in case you are also a crazy fan person.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is another great read by David Sedaris, who rants about his technoloathing (not technophobia for him, no sir), bemoans his ability to communicate in French (hence the title) and cracks wise about the death of pets and parents.  I’ve waxed poetic about my love for Sedaris before, so I’ll just say he continues to satisfy my every snarky impulse.

Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is a collection of essays by Michael Chabon that were originally printed in such places as The Washington Post  Book World, New York Review of Books and Architectural Digest (yes, really). His non-fiction is as precise and entertaining as his fiction writing, and he likes some of the same people I do (Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, comic books), so I’ve forgiven him for Sherlock Holmes.  Worth every penny of the $8 I spent at the Powell’s sale rack (and probably more).

Gentleman and Players is another winner by Joanne Harris. The story of an all-boys school in modern-day England, it explores the pain of growing up, the role of teachers in our lives, and the relentless march of time vs. the proud traditions of the past.  Not as powerful as Blackberry Wine or Holy Fools, but a great read.

Animal Vegetable Miracle is the family memoir of a year spent trying to eat local. Barbara Kingsolver, along with her husband and two daughters, commit to a full year of trying to grow as much of their own food as possible, buy food from no farther than an hour from their home (in the southern Appalachians), and try to live a life-less-damaging (to the planet). The book includes recipes as well as essays on some of the statistics behind commercial food production and what-not, but is mostly the journal of a fabulous writer who happens to be trying something difficult and important. I’ve yet to read a book by this woman that didn’t impress me. It makes me happy that there are people like her sharing the planet with me.

A pair by Joanne Harris

I have previously extolled the virtues of Joanne Harris, so no one should be surprised that I picked up two more of her books:  Holy Fools and Coastliners.  I had Powell’s credit, so I went to ‘Harris’ on the shelf and grabbed the cheapest two that I hadn’t already read.  I did not realize that they were actually linked to each other – and I even read them in the proper order!

Holy Fools was my favorite of the two.  Set in the 17th century in a French nunnery on a secluded island, it examines love, evil, miracles, organized religion (the institution vs. the belief system) and being true to yourself.  This story is told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Juliette, a gypsy & itinerant player who hides away in a nunnery with her young daughter after a brush with the law.  Regardless of whether you like her or agree with her, Juliette is a vivid and real character that is hard to stop reading about.

The world as I see it is one where there are few easy answers, and knowing yourself and being true to that self offer the only chance of retaining one’s sanity and still being happy.  Juliette loves the wrong man, makes poor decisions and doesn’t always do the right thing – but loves with her whole heart, and cares for all of the people she loves to the very best of her not-inconsiderable abilities.  When put in an impossible situation, she strays pretty far outside the box to protect her friends and her daughter, and even punish the bad guys a little.  The ending is left up to the reader, no easy answers and no plot tied up in a neat package – another preference of mine. No one’s story has a precise beginning or ending, and I prefer fiction that knows how to end a book without a metaphorical ‘they lived happily ever after.’  This one didn’t have the emphasis on food that her other books had (at least, the ones I’ve read), but the mood is powerfully rendered and hard to leave behind.

Coastliners might have been a fine book if I hadn’t been comparing it to Harris’s other work. It certainly is not a bad book, by any stretch.  Good characters, setting was unique, interesting and well-written, plot was effective. I think what was missing – for me, at least – was a powerful theme.  All of Harris’s other books have a guiding focus that uses every plot twist, character flaw and detail of setting to support her message.  In contrast, Coastliners read more like a great summer read without too much depth to it.  Of course, in comparison to a true ‘summer read’ kind of book (I’m thinking of something like Evanovich or Shopaholic-type reads) this one is plenty deep. Mado is a young woman returning to the island she called home as a child after her mother dies.  Her reclusive father still lives there, and she’s soon caught up in the drama of the haves vs. the have-nots on the island. My favorite thing about the book?  Harris has two nuns that were inspired by Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls!  I love it when the strange pieces of my life intersect.

I am currently revisiting my obsession with The Wheel of Time, after reading the latest book.  Suddenly, not spending so much time on the computer…

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.