Friday, August 21, 2009

August 22, 2009: Let's talk about books.

By my counts, I read more than 2,000 pages on vacation. Two thousand pages, spread across five books. This shouldn't be as surprising as it is. The people at the airport, both going and returning, were skeptical when I claimed there was nothing but books in my laptop bag. (Of course, this probably has less to do with the presence of books than the absence of a laptop, which I did indeed manage, and stunningly.)

And looking at those five books, you'd maybe not think they belonged to the same person. It happens a lot with books, for me. My interests sprawl, and purposefully so. I collect little bits and pieces of interests, each fairly thorough. If it was a coat it'd be Joseph's. (AND THAT COAT HAS GOT OUR GOAT. I really need to revise that parody of the ALW musical I wrote last year. Yes, I know the story is from the Bible.) So while there are thousands - millions? - of patches I need to sew on, I'll start with these few.

(Spoilers for the books mentioned are ahead. That's "The Crimson Petal and the White" by Michel Faber and "Best Foot Forward" by Joan Bauer. More writeups are forthcoming.)


Technically, I did not read all of Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White over vacation. I've been reading it on and off since June. But then, at 800+ pages, it rewards such an investment of time.

To start off, the beginning is flat-out flawless. A few reviewers were irritated by the narrator. I was irritated by those reviewers. You want to talk about books that grab you from the first page? This one does. I suppose I'm just a person who likes to be spoken to, especially by fascinating people. And the first few pages are a master class in voice.

On the one hand, the story is familiar - local prostitute, a bit too modern for her time, makes good and rises through the social classes step by step. The difference, of course, is that this book came out centuries later, and it can afford to get much more graphic. This goes for language - the most immediately obvious aspect, of course; a 4-letter word is going to jump off the page on most occasions - but it also goes for thematic content. I suppose I was lured in by the Jane Eyre plotline that seemed to be crystallizing. The relationship between Sugar and William, if not love (and it isn't; there are too many extraneous problems, too many flawed situations and too many personality defects that get in the way), is remarkable in how accurately it depicts those feelings people get despite themselves. How one finds oneself thinking about someone despite the utter lack of logical reasons to, and how much these can resemble real feelings.

And the other characters were great too, especially the women. There's Emmeline Fox, who just grows steadily more interesting as time goes by. Agnes, too; as she gets characterization (granted, from the old-diary plot device, but I happen to love this device, one starts to suspect that she's not nearly as insane as everyone thinks she is. Her so-called crazy theology, for instance, isn't all that far off from what's being taught now. And then, of course, there's Sophie Rackham (ugh, even the last name sounds wrong. She needs a rechristening.), who immediately earned a spot on my list of fictional children who make me want to raise a child right this second. (Shameful admission: This list includes Sim children. Amalia is the best kid ever.)

But why am I really praising it so much? The story arc. It's perfect in almost every way. And near the end, I realized exactly what would happen and my throat got caught. It was that perfect. There was only one thing that bugged me: what about Caroline? She was introduced in the beginning and has some of the last lines of the novel, so her character gets closure in that sense, but wouldn't it be the right thing to do for Sugar to come back for her? Everyone looking for her already knows what's what. Both Sugar and Caroline have demonstrated their ability to disguise themselves. And I trust that Sugar's a lot better at escaping cities than Agnes is. So why not take Caroline? This is a personal quibble, not a writing-related one. I like Caroline and think she deserves escape too. What this really means is that if I ran away with someone's daughter, I would be discovered within days.


And for some light reading, I picked up "Best Foot Forward" by Joan Bauer, one of my favorite YA authors. She definitely writes a character type, but it's an awesome type - independent, funny female characters who, if they're teens, pursue their own offbeat interests like family histories or shoe sales. And when they get to be adults, they become even more colorful. Awesome wilderness explorers, ironclad shoe executives, even hermits. I love them all.

So I'm disappointed to be so disappointed. It wasn't bad - the book was quite readable - but there was just too much going on and too much spread too thin. And then there are all the morals. I have no problem with morals, but when they come one or two per page and when every conversation in the book contains an pre-sedimented nugget of wisdom, then I start having a problem. Maybe it's because I'm older. I don't know.

And then there's the whole business about the donut guy. Maybe I'm different than most YA readers, but what's interesting about these books is the insights into the shoe business. When you hear about shoes in fiction, it's the chick lit paradigm. You don't hear about quality shoes that last. "Rules of the Road" made me want to go find a Gladstone's and bankrupt myself there.

So to sidetrack all this with a romantic plot tumor about a guy in a donut shop out of nowhere not only makes no sense, but renders Tanner completely harmless as far as another love interest. He's set up as "hot but scary," but his scariness in terms of a relationship consists of a few ex-girlfriends, of one genuinely jerkish "You're cute when you're mad" line and of not being Donut Charlie. Sure, a lot of this expectation came from the book jacket, which - as far as I have heard - is the equivalent of a newspaper headline (i.e. written by someone else), but still. Give us more about harvesting the brand! That part was great. It picked up about halfway through because of all that detail.

And one final point: I'm a name nerd and I have truly seen, if not it all, then most of it. But "Yaley" is in a class by itself. And not a good class, either.

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