Showing posts with label children's fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's fiction. Show all posts

Monday, 18 June 2007

Real Fantasy

Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is one of the books on the Newbery list I have most dreaded reviewing. When it comes to qualities that make a book the hardest to review, this novel has all the bases covered. I have read and reread it so many times over the past 20 years that it’s difficult to dredge up any even quasi-objective thoughts or fresh impressions about it. I love it and pretty much everything else McKinley has written, and I’ve already covered one Robin McKinley book in an earlier review, so my reserve of non-groupie-like praise for her work has already been exhausted. However, I am in a reviewing mood today and this review has to be written sometime if I’m ever to get through the Newbery winners list, so here we go.

I first read The Hero and the Crown 20 years ago, at the age of 13. I never related to Aerin, never felt I was like her, never wanted to be her nor even to be friends with her (even supposing that she would, theoretically, have wanted to be friends with me), never imagined myself a part of her world as so often did with my favourite books. All I knew was that she and Damar sucked me in and roared and clashed and happened all around me.

The Hero and the Crown, to try to sum it up briefly and without spoilers as per the reviewer’s rule book, is about Aerin, the daughter of a king of a country that is half magical fantasyland and half medieval. Aerin a bit of a misfit, though I hate to use the word, because it might lead to my using “ragtag” and “lovable” and because it smacks of Disney movies involving bands of lovable, ragtag misfits and I don’t want Disney or anything it spawns even that close to anything McKinley ever wrote.

So I’d better say that Aerin is somewhat at odds with her environment because her mother was a commoner who was suspected of being a witch and because Aerin has the kind of crankily independent personality that would pretty much guarantee her being at odds with any environment, anywhere. The people of her land and most of the royal household look askance at her, and she looks askance back. Aerin grows up in a melee that never knows what to make of her, and so she has to take matters into her own hands and make something of herself – retraining a lamed war horse of her father’s and inventing a new way to ride, learning how to use a sword, discovering a formula for dragonfire-proof salve, exterminating dragons, becoming a saving presence for her cousin and heir to the throne Tor, and eventually mustering all these acquired skills in defense of her country and people at a time of great dangers.

McKinley is probably incapable of creating a princess that is anything like the popular storybook conception of one. For Aerin’s world McKinley even ditches the word princess in favour of her own original royal hierarchy and terms. Aerin and her cousins are all ranked as first and second sols and solas and there are some political manoeuvrings and attempted sola climbing. Aerin, by the way, was born with more than her fair share of her father’s political acumen, though mostly she can’t be bothered to use it. Galanna, Aerin’s cousin, is more of a fairy tale stock character (specifically in a nasty stepsister sort of way), but even she is has some intelligence and depth and her tussles with Aerin are satisfyingly evenly matched, bring out the worst in both of them, and usually end in some kind of draw. McKinley shows the same inventiveness when it comes to Aerin’s heroic actions. Aerin's achievements are never unproblematic, and never win her the unqualified adoration of her people as it might in a lesser book. Luthe, the mage whose help she seeks (a mage being a sort of wizard with advanced training), finds his magical practice a complicated and troublesome thing and is just as subject to mistakes and impulses as any else in the book.

The last review I wrote and another one I am working on now have left me pondering the role of fantasy in our lives, and the qualities which make it satisfying. It seems to me that the more richly detailed and nuanced a fantasy is the more absorbing it will be. A princess may be as beautiful as she is good, but that won’t make her interesting. A reader doesn’t know – or want to know – Princess Goodie Gum Drops the ways she does Aerin, with her badly darned stockings and her rueful take on life. The paradox of fantasy is that the more real it seems, the more completely one can escape into it. A good fantasy world must be as rich in detail and as multilayered as the real world we inhabit. McKinley understands this, and that is why The Hero and the Crown and all her other books are unfailingly a world in themselves.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Chewing on Chicklit

On a recent trip to Value Village I came across a copy of Jemima J: a novel about ugly ducklings and swans, by Jane Green. I distinctly remembered a discussion about the book on the old forums. Everyone was united in loathing. So I spent the few dollars to buy it, thinking happily that there would be a lot of scope for ridicule in it and I could have fun trashing it in a review.

And then I read it. It really wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I’m not saying it’s good, mind you, just that it’s not completely unreadable and its failings provided me with some food for thought. In review terms this is what’s known as damning with qualified negatives, as in “You know, Madonna didn’t totally suck in Evita.” Am I recommending you read this book? No, go watch Evita instead. What I really want to do here is muse about some of the issues with Jemima J, and with chicklit in general.

I’m not widely read in this genre, but I have read a sampling: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones duo as well as her earlier (promising if not quite there) Cause Celeb and later (terrible) Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination; the first several books in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret; Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance, and probably more that I have forgotten because they were forgettable. I suppose I could do a feminist critique of these books and complain about how they reinforce stereotypes and trivialize women’s issues and how no one writes this kind of stupid crap for a male audience and so forth, but I won’t. My main problem with this genre is that I expect it to be fun and involving and that it so seldom is.

Not that such books aren’t enjoyable in spots. Helen Fielding does have a remarkable talent for satire and in the first Bridget Jones book she sends up the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of office, family, friendship, and relationship politics in a way that had me in hysterics more than once. The first Shopaholic book was genuinely fun in a confectionary style, with its pitch perfect comic rendering of behaviour out of control, and the attendant denial, procrastination, magical thinking, and resolutions broken again and again. I couldn’t help liking that in Jemima J Jemima accomplishes exactly what she attempts, and as for Elegance, well… so I'll put up with a lot to read about clothes and style. Bite me.

But as much as I enjoyed the fun parts of these books, I can’t give these writers a free pass for their sloppy literary technique any more than I can condone the life of the party driving drunk. By all means write a fun, frothy book, but don’t get lazy and flout the rules for writing fiction, which are always in force, no matter the genre. The characters must be multi-dimensional, the factual content adequately researched, the conflicts compelling, the plot believable, the prose competent, and so forth.

And I’ll go beyond this standard list of literary requirements and make a special request of chick lit writers: Please, please, PLEASE don’t create any more stupid, vapid heroines who fuck up everything they touch. It’s not cute and it’s not funny and it’s the single biggest failing and irritant of this genre. The second Bridget Jones movie was generally considered not as good as the first, and I believe this to be due at least in part because the second book wasn’t as good as the first. Helen Fielding borrowed the plot of Bridget Jones' Diary from Pride and Prejudice; for Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason she seems to have flown solo, with the result that both she and Bridget ran amok. I know a lot of women who were almost offended by the second movie. Bridget is supposed to be an ordinary woman, perhaps even an Everywoman (at least for the single, thirty-something crowd), and ordinary women expect an Everywoman to be much like themselves: intelligent, generally competent, and capable of both letting things slide and cleaning up well. We do not at all like the implication that ordinary women don’t know how to do their jobs properly, make basic decisions without the aid of their friends, or dress up becomingly for a special occasion. I spent the entire reading thinking alternately, “Can’t you do anything right?” and "How stupid can you be?" And let’s not even get into the notion that a 5’6” woman who weighs 140 pounds is fat.

But at least the Bridget Jones sequel wasn’t as bad as the Shopaholic sequels. It’s the same gag over again. And over again. Oh, and here it is again. Becky shops, and keeps shopping. And gets in financial trouble again. And pisses off her boyfriend/fiancé/husband again. And learns how wrong this all is. Until the next instalment. Rinse, repeat. Kinsella seems to be suffering from her own form of compulsion and is now up to her fifth book, Shopaholic and Baby. I can only hope she manages to stop herself before she reaches Shopaholic and Great-Grandbaby, in which Becky acquires a raft of designer walkers and false teeth and a bankrupted Luke moves out of their home to go live with their granddaughter, who is a voluntary simplicity guru.

It’s really no fun to read a book when one spends one’s entire time tapping one’s fingers waiting for the heroine to Get It. The premise of Elegance was a good one, but its execution wasn’t. I loved that a reading of a vintage book of fashion advice inspired the heroine to change her life. This is how inspiration works. It can spring from many sources; the simplest thing can galvanize you simply because you are ready to act. But there was something so conscious and mechanical about Louise’s journey. The book’s chapters are so topical, like a self-help book. Louise proceeds too neatly and efficiently from Learning Not To Settle to Learning Not to Spend Time with Toxic People to Learning Not To Be Afraid of Change, and the lessons she learns are just too clear cut and obvious. Her progression should have felt more organic and messy, like real change and growth always does.

In Jemima J, Jemima is at least not completely clueless. Nor is she a chronic mess who cannot develop any sort of self-control, a la Becky Bloomwood Branden or Bridget Jones. Over the course of the book, she loses 100 pounds, makes some new friends who care about her and falls in love with one of them, takes a trip to Los Angeles to meet a gorgeous man she met on the Internet, and sees her career options open up. Her friends assure her she’s a talented writer. She’s not. She’s a hack writer with a basic grasp of editing, but she has the ability and the work ethic required to churn out work to specifications, and in the world of fashion journalism to which she aspires, that will take her far. (Hey, it worked for Bonnie Fuller). And I liked that she has the self-discipline to do what’s necessary.

But… the novel isn’t funny, the characterizations are flat and stereotypical, and the plot twists are contrived. I’m less than enthusiastic about Green’s employment of dual narrative voices. She switches back and forth between Jemima’s first person narrative and an omniscient third person narrator. In the hands of a more skilled writer this could be an interesting way to structure a narrative. In Jemima J, it’s simply clunky, like a driver who can’t figure out what gear to use nor how to shift smoothly between them. The reader, to extend the analogy, winds up feeling like a confused and motion-sick passenger.

I’ve also read a number of criticisms on the net about the unrealistic elements of this book, and definitely agree with some of them. I don’t think Jane Green got the weight loss right. I’m going to hazard a guess and say Green has never been obese and that her research about it was cursory. Her depiction of Jemima’s weight loss project just does not have the ring of authenticity. I’m afraid those of us who have had to struggle with the occasional extra ten or twenty pounds are too prone to think we know all about what it’s like to be overweight. We don’t. Being 20 pounds overweight is nothing like being 100 or more pounds overweight. I struggle with my weight, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with such physical limitations and so many daily humiliations, to not be able to find anything in the stores to fit me, to live with the kind of abject self-loathing some obese people do, to have people avoid eye contact or glare at me because I sat next to them on the bus. This thread on MetaFilter about what it’s like to be obese made this clear to me. I can easily walk four miles in an hour regardless of what I happen to weigh. I don’t know what it would be like to feel as though my knees are full of broken glass after walking a couple of blocks. A blog linked to in that thread, Clemie’s Reasons Why, almost had me in tears because it seemed so tragic that such a young, intelligent, personable woman could be reduced to such abject shame that some days she hides when there is a knock at the door rather than have anyone see her.

Jemima loses 100 pounds in approximately three months, which is surely very unlikely if not completely impossible. Sure, she might have lost 30 pounds that first month, but she would have been VERY lucky to lose three or four pounds a week for those last twenty or thirty pounds – one or two pounds a week would be much more realistic. Dieting plateaus are inevitable no matter how disciplined one is, and her rate of loss would have gotten slower and slower the closer she got to her goal, especially when her goal weight of 120 was very thin for her 5’7” frame There’s also no mention of skin sag or stretch marks – I find it hard to believe that at that rate and amount of weight loss there was none.

Jemima does not buy any sort of a transitional wardrobe as she downsizes, and I don’t see how that could have been avoided, even leaving aside the consideration of how it would have made her look. In my experience 10 pounds (lost or gained) = approximately one clothing size. A hundred pounds lost would mean a drop of 10 clothing sizes. Since Jemima wears a size eight at her goal weight, her original clothing size would have been a 28 or thereabouts. Even if I'm way off in my estimate and her old size was say, an 18 or a 20, her old skirts, pants and underwear would have literally fallen off her before she hit her goal weight.

Then there’s the fact that she met a gorgeous L.A. fitness studio owner named Brad via the net. Some reader reviews I have seen on the net scoff at the idea that such an attractive man would use internet dating. I’m not incredulous. Extremely good-looking people do use internet dating services; I’ve met some of them myself. I don’t find it hard to believe that a man like Brad, who turns out to be very shallow (even more so than everybody else in the book, amazingly), would resort to Internet dating to meet a “perfect” girl who looks the part he wants her to play in his life. What I do find impossible to believe is that Jemima spent months regularly communicating with this man via telephone, internet and fax (the narrator comments that Brad proves during this time “to be the one light of her life”) and never realized how one-dimensional he was until she met him in person. Such a prolonged communication would soon peter out unless there were some serious metaphysical rapport to sustain it, and the two participants would get a very good sense of who the other was. That said, Green does depict the gradual deflation of Jemima and Brad’s relationship fairly well. It wasn’t quite necessary for her to throw in a coup de grâce plot twist that would put a definite end to it, especially one that wasn’t all that believable, but never mind.

Green also does reasonably well with Jemima’s adjustment to her weight loss. I recognized it from my own experience – for awhile you feel streamlined enough to take flight, and are giddily euphoric… and then you get used to it and you realize that weight loss isn’t magic, that it hasn’t essentially changed who you are or made your life complete. Jemima also has the late bloomer’s experience of social life and makes mistakes most women make at a younger age than 27, such as mistaking great sexual chemistry for love.

One of the notable things about this book is that it actually tries to document the experience of a fat woman. It doesn’t succeed at all well, and there are some truly offensive elements in it, such as the idea that it’s a shameful fetish for a man to find large women attractive (why is this any more kinky or weird than having a thing for redheads?) or the idea that Jemima must lose weight to find love and be happy (I know a number of overweight women whose partners adore them). But the book tells a story about a fat woman. And the fact that such a fourth-rate book is the one of the few I can think of that are about an overweight woman is very telling. Something like half the population of North America is overweight, yet in our novels and movies fat people are either completely absent, or relegated to being the sassy best friend, the comic relief, or the pathetic mess who must slim down before she can enter into the world of the people who are loved, who have successful careers and friends, who register with the rest of us. This says something about the disconnect between our collective imagination and our reality, and leaves me pondering the nature of fantasy and its appeal for us.

I may have daydreamed about being a princess as a child, but now my most satisfying day dreams are those that lie in the realm of possibility. Whether creating my own stories or watching or reading someone else’s, I don’t like being the caustic, disinterested observer, thinking, yeah, right, that would never happen. I like being able to enter wholly into a story, feeling both able to relate to the characters and able to experience a new world vicariously through them. And I know it’s difficult to create work of this calibre in any genre, but for some reason writers who write for a largely female audience (those who produce romances, chick lit, and the new and equally horrendous genre of “mom lit”) seem to get a special license to churn out garbage, probably because there’s a market for it. While we don’t necessarily get the fiction we deserve, we do get what we pay for.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

The Newbery Project

I’m contemplating a large, ongoing project for The Orange Swan Review: to review all the Newbery Medal winners. To give you an idea of the scope of this project, check out the list of award recipients. Yes, at the time of this writing there are 85 past recipients. And I would only do two Newbery books a month as I don’t wish to either make this site entirely about kid lit or to wind up having to spend the coming year reading almost nothing but children’s fiction. For one thing, many of the kind of readers I would like to attract wouldn’t frequent such a site. And then, as much as I enjoy children’s and young adult fiction, it would feel a little too much like subsisting on a diet of milk and cookies. I'd soon crave steak, strawberries, baked potatoes, croissants, raspberry tarts, avocado and tomato sandwiches, lentil soup, brie cheese, Reese peanut butter cups, and so on.

According to my math it will take me nearly four years to accumulate reviews for all these books (and those that will be added to the list in that time). Yet I have a fatalistic feeling that this is what I intend. I’ll never have a better excuse to read all the Newbery books as I have long wanted to do, and a comprehensive collection of Newbery reviews would be a plum feature of any book review site.

Why have I chosen the American Newbery Medal when, say, the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature or the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for children’s or young adult fiction might make be a more obvious choice for me as a Canadian as well as being less punishing in terms of workload? I hate to say this, but I chose the Newbery list because, overall, its winners are superior to my country’s award winners. No, I have not read all the books on either list so I should not make such a sweeping claim. But among those titles I have read I see none on the Governor General’s or CLA’s lists that can stand beside Katharine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia, Joan W. Blos’s A Gathering of Days or Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song. I see Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, which is a solid and entertaining but not distinguished piece of work. I see Jean Little’s 1985 CLA Book of the Year for Children award-winner Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, which is another good book, but which wouldn’t have won any sort of direct competition with 1985 Newbery Medalist, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

I know this painful contrast exists because Canada has a smaller population than the U.S.A. rather than less talent per capita, but I still wince to see the same few authors winning the awards again and again, and the overlap between the two awards. Have we really so very few good home grown books to choose from that no one can give Kit Pearson, Janet Lunn, Jean Little, and Tim Wynne-Jones a run for their money?

I definitely will make an effort to read and review Canadian books, and to write about at least the current Canadian award winners and contenders, but my passion for stellar literature overrules my (very real, and vested) loyalty and concern for the Canadian publishing industry, and so it is the Newbery Medalists that will become the main focus of my mission. Look for the first essay within the next few weeks.