A Trip Through Time and Space

Miss Hargreaves
by Frank Baker

A phantasmagorical magic lantern show, Miss Hargreaves is a treat–a luscious Anglophilic truffle of a novel. Brittish-isms? Check. Cathedrals and church music? Check. Eccentric old ladies? Check. A Jeeves and Wooster novel-cum-fantasy? Check. One of NPR’s book critics, librarian Nancy Pearl, offered Miss Hargreaves up as one of her “under the radar” reads and it is not to be missed if any of the above piques your interest.

Norman Huntly, a twenty-something church musician, makes a harmless game of creating fantastic stories and characters “on the spur of the moment”. So to pass a quiet afternoon, for instance, Norman and his best chum Henry might carry on between themselves about a trip to Ireland or a man in the pub–all, mind you, totally the creation of their imaginations. And so once on a visit to a dreary cathedral, spurred on by a boring sexton, Norman and Henry regale the sexton with tales of their dear friend Miss Connie Hargreaves–she of the noisy cockatoo, traveling harp, and books of poetry. Later that evening (and probably fueled by quantities of stout and whiskey), Norman sends off an invitation  to their Miss Hargreaves, begging her to visit. All quite a lark.

Only imagine his surprise when he receives a reply from a Miss Hargreaves some days later–with her acceptance and her itinerary. Flummoxed, Norman assumes Henry has found a way to turn the joke around on him; but he is even more mystified when a book of poetry by Constance Hargreaves turns up in his father’s book shop.

This is truly a book that has no easy explanation, and if I supplied a spoiler alert you might think I was pulling your leg. Is Miss Hargreaves real? Perhaps her appearance is just a series of incredible coincidences? Is it possible she is a ghost? This is a book that defies categorization, really. If you like Jeeves and Wooster, if you accept Mary Poppins, if you want a novel whose plot is not tired, this is your late summer treat.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken

Home to Holly Springs
by Jan Karon

One of my secret guilty pleasures is the Mitford series by Jan Karon. Too quaint, bordering on maudlin, pat plot lines … but, oh, do I love Father Tim, Cynthia, Dooley, and all the animal and human characters that make up life in Mitford. Interestingly, I started the books before I returned to the Church–and even though I was not what I’d call a praying girl at the time, I wasn’t at all put off by Father Tim’s rather sentimental vision of God and life in the church. For goshsakes I even read the prayers Father offered up!

Jan Karon “ended” the Mitford series with Light From Heaven … and shortly after began her new Father Tim series. My guess is that Karon wanted to be free from the confines of Mitford, and Home to Holly Springs takes Father Tim Kavenaugh out of North Carolina and back to his birthplace in Mississippi. Readers of the Mitford series know that Tim had a problematic relationship with his father, and never quite healed from the loss of both his mother and housekeeper Peggy. I suspected (quite rightly) that Karon would use this book to unbury those family secrets.

And reveal she did. The novel was again filled with God-driven “coincidences” and quirky characters, woven together with Father Tim’s childhood memories. Many of those memories were ones faithful readers had heard bits and pieces of before, but were fleshed out to fill in his childhood–and, on the whole, those stories were Karon’s strongest. My biggest disappointment were the secondary characters, of which she probably had more than necessary. Many of them seemed added simply to advance the story–unlike those strong Mitford characters, they were easily skimmed over and forgotten, save two or three. (But that was also my criticism of her later Mitford books as well.)

I read Home in a day and wouldn’t have needed (or wanted) to spend any more time on it. It was satisfying only because it was like having coffee with a long-lost friend. It was also a weepy read–partly Karon’s sentimentality, partly the love between Tim and Cynthia, and partly because I was horribly home-sick for my children. Not nearly as endearing (or enduring, I fear) than those early Mitford books, I will probably still be up for the next book in the series In the Company of Others, if only to spend some more time with Father Tim. .

Just started: Last Guard Out by Jim Albright. Purchased at Alcatraz on my recent trip to San Francisco, it is the account of one of the last guards to serve at “The Rock”.

Reading China

Oracle Bones
by Peter Hessler

This was our August book club read; the 458 pages was intimidating to some, parts I and II were pretty convenient at 218 pages–so we called it good at half a book (although some of us overachievers couldn’t resist reading the entire thing)! And author Peter Hessler provided plenty to talk about in our discussion even at the halfway point.

Beginning in 2002, Hessler spent years  traveling, teaching, and writing in China, living (usually illegally) in Chinese neighborhoods. That advantage gave him the opportunity to befriend locals who gave him rare insight into the lives of middle class Chinese. And so we meet William Jefferson and Nancy Drew (their chosen English names), a pair of Chinese teachers who left their rural village to become “migrants”, traveling to the coast where better lives were to be had in the city–or so they thought. Former students of Hessler, Willy’s warm  letters to him are dear, and reproduced verbatim, replete with misspelled words and raunchy jokes. Willy’s passion for learning and teaching English rival none and he was never without an English dictionary and notebook. By Chinese standards, Willy and Nancy lived comfortable lives; Americans, however, would not be content with the long hours, bleak landscape of the city,  shabby apartment, and low pay. We also meet Polat, an ethnic Uighur, who makes his fortune (and loses it) as a money exchanger, and finally emigrates to the U.S. where he is granted political asylum; a Chinese radio talk show host who gives advice to the lovelorn; and old Mr. Zhao, who fought to save his courtyard hutong from being razed.

Hessler frames his narrative by including chapters he labels as Artifact A, B, C, etc–all cultural and archeological treasures of the Chinese. The reader learns that China, rather than being the monolith we Americans seem to think, is, in fact, a vast region of many cultures and languages. We learn of an ancient city wall being unearthed by peasants spoonful-by-spoonful as it winds its way through farmland, and of the origin of Chinese characters. And, of course, of the oracle bones–really tortoise plastrons etched with questions, fired, and then “read” by diviners. Always a bit slow, it took me about 450 pages to realize the significance of the book’s title. Just as the oracle bones of the past revealed life’s mysteries, Hessler was also reading the cracks of Chinese culture to reveal the world of the Chinese to American readers. How exquisite that the journalist becomes modern-day diviner.

Next up: Miss. Hargreaves by Frank Baker. Published in 1940 this novel’s time space continuum is far beyond its time–so far, a great lark!

Pretty is as pretty does

by Scott Westerfeld

I had no intention of reading this entire YA series; to be honest, I only read Scott Westerfeld’s first book, Uglies, because I promised some students I would (see my post from June 15, 2010). But Westerfeld left the reader hanging at the end of Uglies, the publisher cunningly included a five page teaser to Pretties at the end … and I was hooked.

Readers of Uglies will not be disappointed. Definitely geared for young adult readers (and probably girls, at that), the novel continues to explore our culture’s preoccupation with physical beauty. Tally Youngblood and her friend Shay have finally become pretty. As the novel opens, Shay, in fact, has just “surged” again, and now has twelve tiny rubies implanted around her iris’. The girls’ lives center around a series of over-the-top parties and dances … and then recovering from hangovers the next day.

[spoiler alert]

Pretties, however, addresses some intriguing subtleties of this future world. While it is true that pretty “beauty” is fairly standardized (large eyes, full lips, unblemished skin, long limbs), we also learn that new pretty muscles are strong and pretties rarely become sick; most injuries can be quickly and easily
repaired. Pretties organize themselves into cliques–the Crims, the Hot-airs, the Cutters–something every teen can relate to. And maybe most intriguing, the idea of being “bubbly”–that adreneline rush or exhileration that comes with taking  risks or pushing boundaries.And in an interesting twist, we discover that this world of pacifists studies violent behavior by holding a group of pre-Rusties on a reservation.

Readers of Uglies know that Tally undergoes her pretty surgery knowing that the accompanying brain lesions will leave her vacuous and inane–and also knowing that she would be smuggled a cure from an ugly doctor. When Tally and her boyfriend Zane find the cure after a wild hunt, Tally decides she will divide the pills between them–to disastrous results. Most of the novel follows Tally in yet another escape to the Smoke. And once again the novel ends with a cliffhanger.

Young adult readers will appreciate Westerfeld’s frank treatment of sex, alcohol, and rebellion. Parents can rest assured, however, that the author does not titallate–while we know Tally sleeps with her boyfriend, there is no mention of having sex; hangovers are just as miserable in Pretty Town as they are in our world; and rebellion takes the form of outrageous pranks, as opposed to any bitter hatred of adults.

A little bit Harry Potter (think Harry’s Nimbus and Tally’s hoverboard), with a dash of Star Trek (think body scans and protoplasers), add some teen angst, and you’ve got Pretties. Now … on to Specials, third in the series!

Next up: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, August’s Chicks on Books read.

The End

by Jon Clinch

[spoiler warning]

Eight months after putting Finn aside I took the novel up again and finally finished this dark and incredibly creative novel. Jon Clinch tells the back story of Pap Finn, following faithfully much of  Mark Twain’s narrative in Huckleberry Finn: we see Judge Thatcher, Widow Douglas, the Preacher. Interestingly, Huck is but a shadow in this story. Finn’s family is wealthy, staid, and racist in the manner of the South during the 1860s. Throughout the novel Finn is simultaneiously drawn to and repulsed by a former slave, Mary. Finn’s self-hatred takes the form of vicious abuse; Finn’s father is a judge who disowns Finn for taking up with Mary.

True to my earlier post on November 2, 2009, the novel continued in a raw and brutal manner.The novel opens with a gruesome scene: a black and bloated corpse floats down the Mississippi, covered in blowflies. This image will continue to haunt the novel and, in bits and pieces we learn  that Finn has murdered and flayed the woman in an effort to rid himself of what he sees as his essential weakness–miscegenation. In a complicated twist on Twain’s work, Mary is Huck’s mother. Huck Finn is black.

In his author’s note, Clinch references an scholarly work by Shirley Fisher Fishkin, “Was Huck Black?”. Fishkin’s premise is based largely on Huck’s dialect, which was more black vernacular than Southern white, and the fact that Huck seemed to be based on one or two black children Twain knew. While audacious, the re-reading of Twain’s work made this novel compelling.

But Finn’s rationalization of his murder of Mary, the encroaching insanity of his alcoholic delirriums, his participation in the brutal rape of a young black boy, and his imprisonment of Huck are written almost poetically, only adding to the the novel’s horror. Here is Clinch after Finn begins his dismemberment of Mary: “Fastidious in his methods, he arranges each portion upside down or inside out, its inner surface made outer to show red and slick and fibrous but never allowed to reveal the dark curse of its hidden face. He arranges the pieces thus to speak of death and death only … as if by such transformation he can alter all that has gone before and begin anew, clean and pure and washed in the indiscriminate blood.”  Finn–homeless, dirt poor, abusive, alcoholic–seems to have no trace of humanity left. Yet it is Judge Finn–respected, educated, wealthy–who chills the reader perhaps even more. For in facing his mortality, the aging Judge Finn summons his son with one last request–that Finn murder “The creature. The child. The boy” because “I cannot tolerate my blood passing through mulatto veins … I am relying on you to end the life of that bastard creature. And bring me evidence.” The Judge’s blood runs cold in Pap’s veins.

Some sort of justice (or perhaps it’s just more violence) is meted out at the novel’s end–another black woman ties Pap to the rape of her son and kills him in his sleep … with the same knife that flayed Huck’s mother. Inventive and audacious–difficult to read–but in the end, Finn is well worth the effort.