Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leslie Burke

In a recent set of interviews and application psych tests, I found myself faced with a question that has stumped me for years now: Name and describe a fictional or historical character you admire and respect. It's always difficult with historical figures, because the ones I know most about are either inherently evil or malicious (or at least are perceived as such), or entirely ubiquitous. Instead I take this as an opportunity for literary fun, where the first concern is that of audience. Who am I writing this for? From the first instant, I find myself limiting my options. It can't be a character with too grim a setting, because this is ultimately an  application. Just as television's most popular bookworm Rory Gilmore once commented, you can't write down Sylvia Plath for all your admiration, because that leads to the question of: "So do you also want to shove your head in an oven?" The more you know about an author, the more you realize that it's incredibly difficult to admire and respect them. I turn to fictional characters and then the trouble begins...

You can't pick something too common, like Hermione Granger (for all her wit and bravery), nor can you pick a character too tortured to truly be respected, like Ender. It has to be a reasonably well established book, can't be so obscure the reference is lost on the examiner, but also can't be so common the choice shows nothing of your personality. Almost all adult characters are deeply flawed in some way (that is, of course, one of the measures by which we hold quality literature these days) and are therefore tricky, complicated choices. Oh, and this choice is in the midst of timed testing.

And so it came to be that Leslie Burke was my choice as character of the decade.

Are you scratching your head? Leslie Burke, Leslie Burke. The girl from Bridge to Terabithia? Yes.

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books I like recommending to just about every kid I come across. It's far older than I am and by the time I read it, it had shown that it could survive generation shifts with kids still appreciating it. Heck, even scenes like all the kids wondering at the fact that Leslie's family doesn't own a TV set are still relevant today. It's a story suited for both boys and girls, tough and sporty at times while magical and emotional at others. More to the point, it's a well-written book with believable, breathing children characters that handles difficult topics with ease.

Back to Leslie. The tragic heroine of Bridge to Terabithia, the imaginative, spunky, sporty, intelligent and all-over adventurer Leslie. Independent by the standards of the town she lives in, unconventional as compared to Jess (the primary character in the book), and fiercely driven, she is given the rare opportunity of playing out only childhood virtues, never reaching adulthood faults. Her flat curiosity in religion, for instance, is intriguing - she does not seek it for herself, but wonders at the lure it poses for others around her. She is nonchalant (we must assume, based on her character) when posed with the childish question, "But what if you die?", still clearly detached from the standard beliefs that bind the other characters. Hers is a world built on imagination and creativity of her own. She needs little else.

The problem is that precisely because Leslie cannot grow up, nor can she develop much in the confines of a children's book, she is almost too good to be true. Her good nature is sincere, but innocent. Her attempts at bonding with the school bully fixate around the fact that she's willing to talk to her, to hear of her troubles. But what if Leslie was only a few years older and the trouble appeared to her as dark as it truly is? With a childish innocence, Leslie can help and coax the anger out of a young woman who, given the few facts we have, has every right to be angry. If she understood the gravity of the situation, would she be able to help quite as much? I very much doubt it.

Even so, I can think of few characters who even ten years down the line have affected me so, without having had to reread the book dozens of times (once or twice, perhaps, but not much more... I'm due for a reread). If ever a young girl to set an example for boys and girls everywhere, it is the figure who is marked by tragedy, whose good nature, spunk and imagination can inspire just about every child. It should not be so surprising, then, that it's Leslie Burke's character who I respect and admire. Even if I seemed to outgrow her a long time ago.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where have all the adventures gone?

It has not been so many years since childhood, and yet I've found myself in the last few years growing very distant from the books that I always found to be best as a kid. No, I don't mean laugh-out-loud hilarious books like the Wayside series, or the enjoyable simplicity of a good-vs.-evil fantasy. I mean the backbone of my childhood reading - the adventure book.

The last couple months have seen me trying to regain some of the childhood magic. When I was a kid, it wasn't so much fantasy that drew me in, or historical fiction, or otherworldly humour - it was the pure, clean adventures that the stories were built around. I look at favorite books like The Count of Monte Cristo, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and sequels, The Golden Compass and Harry Potter, all the way through Ender's Game and The Neverending Story: granted, most of these are fantasy or science fiction, but they all have at their core a sense of adventure and action. Some of my favorite books as a kid were historical fiction books that took me on crazy, sword-fight filled adventures, on crusades, to the farthest reaches of the earth, and back again. Books like A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Books whose names have long faded from my memory.

It is true that for the most part, adventure stories link into fantasy. It's a curiously disappointing case, actually. I look at my possibly favorite book ever The Count of Monte Cristo and see that here is absolute adventure. Swords and bad guys and fighting and drama - all neatly labeled as a classic and therefore totally legitimate to read. It's a sprawling mess of a book, diving from one story to another, from one persona to another and that's where the fun is. In the story. In the adventure.

But this is getting hard to find. Today I look for adventures in young adult fantasy - great books like Jonathan Stroud's excellent Bartimaeus series, the exciting fun of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, the constant movement of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn (Matt Cruse) books - and find that these, while enticing in their action-filled adventure plots, are sometimes lacking in the more subtle story-telling fields that come with books that are more geared for adults (Bartimaeus is definitely the exception). Completely understandable, of course, but this doesn't diminish the disappointment entirely. Meanwhile, why must I suspend reality entirely just to get a bit of a jolt? Can't there be a good adventure story that does not detach itself from reality by living in the fantasy or sci-fi realms? And is high quality?

I recall when Lev Grossman complained that books today lack sufficient plot. He was right to a degree, but also wrong (and the argument would have been better felt had it come from an author whose attempt at writing an adventure book had been less mediocre) - it is not wrong for readers today to prefer the subtleties of character based novels and books that deal more with emotional development than plot development, but Grossman's point can be well taken if looked at the matter of adventure stories. It is rare (but not impossible ) to find a good quality, deeply written adventure novel today. And as a fan of the genre, it's a true shame.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pictures or words

This is weird. The New York Times wrote up a piece about picture books - the recent trend where kids start with chapter books earlier and seem to forsake new and shiny picture books. It's weird for a few reasons. First is the impression I get from the article that there are experts who think that picture books are good for children's development. Uh... yeah. Then there's the idea that it's a bad thing to have kids reading chapter books at earlier ages. It's mentioned, as if in passing, and is sadly what I take away from an otherwise interesting article. So, a few thoughts.

To begin with, I think it's great that the incredibly high prices of hardcover picture books is mentioned. I remember sometime when I was in second grade and already hooked onto chapter books, there was some picture book that looked really nice. I remember picking it up, flipping through its glossy, lovely pages and then - oh, $20. Um. No. Children's books are gorgeously made, all shine and gloss but the price tag scares off so many kids and parents that just don't see the point. Not in the book, but in owning it. Besides, libraries always wrap them up in that awesomely crunching plastic.

I also find the notion that there's something wrong with declining sales to be most fascinating. The article points to the fact that classics are still bestsellers - books like Dr Seuss, and others of that ilk. Maybe - and I find this more plausible and worthy of separate discussion as I think of it - parents prefer buying their young children the books they themselves know and love from childhood. If I had to buy kids books today with no prior knowledge, I would be wary of new releases mostly because I'm fairly wary of just about everything publishers give me these days. That and the recent fad of having too much message in kids books. Or too little. Or just having lame kids books. But it's been a while, so I'm sure I'm missing out on a lot of great books. Isn't the fact that I'm wary like this, though, an indication of what parents might be thinking? Could low sales just be due to consumers preferring what they already know?

As for kids reading chapter books earlier, I gave up the picture book almost entirely by the end of first grade. Not everyone in my class was like that, but the avid readers among us wanted to move upwards to chapter books as soon as possible because it was more challenging, and more to the point - more suited to what we wanted. "The Magic Tree House" series was perfect because it had everything I could ever imagine - books, history, adventures, knowledge, science, mysteries and more. I learned so much with small books that made me feel like I was swallowing up large tomes, like were always shown in the occasional pictures scattered throughout the books. Reading chapter books was reading independently - reading picture books is to this day associated in my mind with early childhood, learning to read, and bedtime stories.

Picture books aren't going out of fashion and there's absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging kids to read independently at younger ages. I think there's some bad marketing going on, that prices are too high, and that parents are taking it safe. Parents shouldn't push their kids to chapter books before they can actually read, but it's definitely an important step and second grade is exactly the time to make it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Abandonment issues

The last few weeks, a book has sat on my desk looking at me with woeful eyes. This debut novel, which sounded really cool and came on sale, was my choice read about a month and a half ago. I started reading, got about 120 pages in (out of 350 or so) and just... stopped. Frustrated by the unbelievable dialogue, bored by a story that was dragging on for way too long, it was very easy to set the book aside (I should note that this book is not available in English and should never be).

I'm not one of those readers that abandons books. I keep bookmarks deep in books I've set aside years ago, convinced one day I'll go back and finish the job. Meanwhile, I've been dipping in and out of several books over the last few months. Books I really like, but ones that just take a little more time and space to read. And then... this. A book that obviously had potential but I lost interest so quickly that the thought of reentering it seems like a waste of time. Why bother?

Everybody has their own rule for abandoning books. Some do a 100 page test. Others can abandon books much more quickly, within the first pages. Others still are like me - leave no book abandoned. But the last few months have seen a sharp rise in the number of books I've read even as the time for reading has gone down significantly. Why? Because I've recognized two important facts: 1. Sometimes it just isn't a book's time, and 2. If a book has been consistently bad, the likelihood that it will turn around in the second half doesn't justify the effort.

It saddens me to say it. Abandoning a book is a failure. It's spitting in the author's face. Now I know that if the author publishes another book, I'm not even going to bother. Perhaps rightly or wrongly. A man poured his soul into his debut novel and I'm giving it up before we even get to the alleged plot (I blame the editors so badly here - this book could have been good with a lot of cutting). But yes - I'm giving this book up. At this point in my life, it's not worth it. And it's definitely not worth feeling guilty over.

But this will not become my new policy. I have no intentions of taking the bookmark out of My Name is Red, nor of saying that I'm not currently reading Nobody's Home (but seeing as the latter is essays, I really don't feel like I've set the book aside; this is just how I read essay collections...). I have simply reached the conclusion that there is one book that was not worth my time for clear reasons. Will I review it even though I didn't finish? Yes. And the question: can I even review a book I have not completed? But that's a story for another time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

[insert publisher] [insert verb] [insert stupid thing]

A few things regarding this story.

I know a lot of people liked Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (I didn't. At all.), but holy cow: 2.5 million dollars advance? For a book? Haven't publisher learned their lesson by now? Does anybody else remember that story about that book that got something like a million dollar advance and then nobody really bought it? (uh... uhh... um. [response: The Kindly Ones]) Not that this will be the case with Desai - I'm certain the cover will have a bland but pretty cover and will advertise loudly and prominantly that Desai is the author of the Booker Prize winning yawn-fest - but it seems like such a foolish, pointless move. Publishers repeatedly complain that their industry is struggling with the advancements of technology and with falling sales. Seems like pointlessly expensive advances on books that may or may not be good aren't helping (I offer the poor reception Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil got as an example of this).

Some people may call this a gamble but on the short run they're wrong. Knopf will make money - rest assured. The book will be hyped and people will buy it, just like people ultimately buy almost every massively hyped book (I'm thinking books like The Passage or Freedom). The question shouldn't be about whether or not Knopf will be able to sell the book with the title that sounds kind of like The Inheritance of Loss (oh, right... The Loneliness of Sonia and Sunny...), but whether or not the book is really worth the hype. This being Desai's second novel, fans of The Inheritance of Loss will almost certainly pay up (no matter what reviews say: again, see Beatrice and Virgil). Again the question: should they?

At this point I cannot judge the quality of a book I have not read. Again, I wasn't a fan of The Inheritance of Loss so I'm a little biased against Kiran Desai, but it frustrates me to know that publishing honestly believes that high publicity advances and paying lots of money for books that will short term rake in cash is the right way to go. If Knopf pays so much money for one book, doesn't that mean that they're less able to publicize and prop up new authors? If they pay fewer advances and let the public decide how much money the author deserves (based on how well the book sells, also relatively under the publicist's control...), doesn't everybody win? And don't they learn from past mistakes? I mean, seriously guys - hasn't history taught us that high advances don't guarantee a good book? A bestseller, maybe, but I do believe we should expect only the highest quality literature from our publishers. Sadly, I'm starting to think that's only wishful thinking.