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Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
Book 3 of the Border Trilogy
11/11/11 Category: Historical Fiction
The reason I have an abiding passion for Cormac McCarthy’s books is the reason it’s hard for me to review them and also the reason I couldn’t finish reading The Road. It is that the landscape, the environment, is always a vital if silent character in his books. Reading The Road, a postapocalyptic novel, made me psychologically ill because it is obvious that the land is dead, and the characters wander through its corpse. Sound strange? McCarthy is brilliant, but not in a comfortable way. His characters only find themselves by losing, sometimes by dying; his prose style, with its lack of quotation marks for dialogue and frequent omission of apostrophes in contractions (cant for can’t, etc.), is not made to be accessible; and tragedy abounds, the kind of tragedy where you know that if just one thing had gone differently, it could have been averted. Not your typical pleasure reading, certainly.
So if I’m uplifted, cheered, satisfied by McCarthy’s books, it’s not for any reason I can give as a basis for other people reading them. The art of book recommendation requires an understanding of *why* each reader loves the books they do and correctly matching those desires to other, similar books. Matching genres, subgenres, thematic elements, subject matter, all have some objectivity to them, but how can you match a book based on the way it made you feel? Or the sound of the language in your mind’s ear? There’s no good vocabulary for discussing books, outside the shared insider jargon of the literary critic, and saying that you love a particular book carries the implication that there is something intrinsically worthwhile about it that anyone could share. This is totally untrue and leads to recriminations later, when your friend can’t get past the second chapter of The Dollmage and thinks you are crazy to rave about it. (Even though it is one of the best YA fantasies ever written.)
Cities of the Plain is the third volume in the very loosely connected Border Trilogy, set in the 1940s and ‘50s (I think) in the Southwest and northern Mexico. The book brings together for the first time the protagonists of the first two books, John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing. Both men are cowboys in the old sense, in a time when ranching is changing dramatically and their way of life, while not gone, is coming to an end. John Grady is a savant when it comes to horse training, young and stubborn and not like the others. When he falls in love with a prostitute, his older friend Billy tries to make him see sense. Billy can tell that John Grady is different, knows that it’s a mistake for him to go up against the pimp who owns the girl and is in love with her, but the story still ends in tragedy. McCarthy is the sort of writer who will use the phrase “The last time John Grady saw her alive” and yet give us a heartrending scene of two people in love who can’t hear the authorial narrator’s voice, so add that to the list of reasons his books aren’t your typical pleasure reading. In Cities of the Plain, the tragic ending is more overtly foreshadowed than in the first two books, which makes for a different experience; bad things are coming, and the only question is how will they play out?
Still—it’s beautiful. It hurts because you know these men, you know their lives and their perspective so well that it’s you who’s hurting with them. The Border Trilogy, as the name implies, deals with liminality—the concept of crossing a line or a doorway from one reality into another. The border to Mexico is more than geographical, it’s almost mystical, a line that marks the place where the rules no longer apply. It could not be more different from the border we in the US are so concerned about these days, the invisible line that fails to make a difference in our immigration policy. Though that border isn’t tangible, it’s liminal both to McCarthy’s characters of 60 years ago and to the people who cross it looking for a better life, or wealth through drug smuggling, or who knows what else.
For me the series has been about mysticism rather than politics. So Cities of the Plain was in that sense a disappointment, lacking either the stepping-out-of-the-world quality All the Pretty Horses has or the quasi-fantasy quest motif of The Crossing. But in every other respect it delivers exactly what one expects of a Cormac McCarthy novel. I thought it was beautiful.
Posted on: June 2nd, 2011
Ghost Boy by Iain Lawrence
11/11/11 Category: Young Adult
Ghost Boy is a beautifully written historical fiction about being different, set in a time when old-fashioned circuses were dying out but hadn’t yet completely vanished from the American scene. The titular character is an albino boy named Harold Kline, mocked and despised by the other kids in his small town for looking different, emotionally isolated from his family after his father and brother’s deaths in World War II and his mother’s remarriage to a man who doesn’t know how to deal with a damaged teenager. When the circus comes to town, Harold encounters the freaks—the diminutive Tina, the ogreish “Fossil Man,” and the enigmatic Gypsy Magda. More importantly, he learns of the Cannibal King, supposedly a barbarian from darkest Africa who happens to be an albino like Harold. Harold leaves home to follow the circus, always hoping to meet the Cannibal King who is always just ahead, scouting for the circus. But he finds his real talent is with the elephants, three sad creatures who are all that is left of the once-great menagerie. His idea to teach the elephants to play baseball as a gambit to draw audiences wins him the affections of Flip, a beautiful young horse trainer who doesn’t seem to care that Harold is different. But when he is torn between the genuine affection of the freaks and the lure of being treated as a normal person, Harold’s life is turned upside down, and he’s forced to grow up fast.
Iain Lawrence writes a beautiful book. You can’t help but be drawn in to the world he depicts, this post-war era in which the economy is recovering, but these little circuses that used to attract huge crowds are disappearing. Lawrence’s characterization is excellent, if a little too obvious. Unlike Harold, we know that Harold’s desperate love for Flip isn’t fully returned; we know that his choice to abandon his real friends when he’s teased about being a freak is going to end badly; we can see that the circus owner cares more about survival than he does about Harold. It all comes across, barely, as dramatic irony, but from a different perspective, it just makes you want to slap Harold so he’ll see the truth. If Lawrence’s skill as a writer weren’t so great, you could pass this book off as just another after-school special about believing in yourself and The True Meaning of Diversity.
That said, there’s still a lot to enjoy about this book. Harold’s sessions with the elephants are funny and intriguing, the more so when you realize that Lawrence based the idea of elephants playing baseball on a true story of English circus elephants who learned to play cricket. The melancholy mood of the story is a perfect fit for the growing despair of everyone in the circus, which will have to be disbanded if they can’t pull off a hit show in Salem, Oregon. Harold’s wild idea is what they all hitch their hopes to, so that the difficulties the elephants have in, for example, learning to throw the ball increase the tension of the story. The ending is tragic in some ways, redemptive in others, and while I knew all along that something really bad had to happen (one of the other sources of tension is the hostility Harold faces from Flip’s large, strong boyfriend), I could never have predicted what finally did happen, despite its being hinted at almost from the beginning.
Ghost Boy is an excellent story, maybe not the most polished young adult novel ever, but definitely worth reading if you’re in the mood for something sad and a little bit terrible.
Posted on: May 12th, 2011
The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier
Penguin UK, 1997
Category: Contemporary Fiction
I really enjoyed this book. I was hooked by the back cover copy’s claim "part detective story, part historical fiction" but beyond that, I didn’t have any expectations, so it was nice that it turned out to be very good. The "detective story" thing is misleading; it’s more like a mystery in two parts, so don’t read it expecting a traditional detective novel. The two parts are narrated by two women, one in the past and one in the present, who are members of the same family. In the past, Isabelle du Moulin is one of the French peasants converted to Calvinism, "The Truth," in the 1500s, whose affection for the Virgin Mary must be hidden from her co-religionists. This is made difficult by her having the red hair and consequent nickname La Rousse that is associated with the Virgin. In the present, Ella Turner has moved from America to a small town in France with her husband, hoping to improve her French, qualify to practice midwifery, and discover her family’s French roots. As Isabelle’s story unfolds, Ella’s story begins to mirror it in unexpected and mysterious ways, ending in the revelation of a secret that has been hidden for over 400 years.
I’m not generally a fan of stories featuring adultery, particularly if the adultery is supposed to be the woman’s salvation from abuse/neglect/boredom. Such stories often gloss over the very real consequences of unfaithfulness that exist even if one or both of those involved really have found their true loves. In House of Sand and Fog, for example, the fact that Lester Burdon was willing to devastate his family simply to meet his own emotional needs really bothered me. By his own admission, he’d spent 7 of his 9 years of married life out of love with his wife, but hadn’t done anything to change that, so trying to justify his adultery with the whole "but now I’m really in love, shouldn’t I be happy?" was a load of crap. In The Virgin Blue, it’s a completely different story. Ella’s gradual beginning of an affair with the librarian Jean-Paul is a wonderfully accurate depiction of how easy it is to fall for someone when you shouldn’t, and how no matter how much joy that person brings you, there’s also the sadness, or shame, or heartbreak of being pulled in two directions at once. Ella’s husband Rick is a perfectly nice guy whose only fault is that he isn’t the right match for Ella, or more specifically, that he doesn’t realize he isn’t the right match for her. For a long time, Ella doesn’t realize it either, and when she flees to her cousin’s house in Geneva to escape the mess she’s in, she’s fleeing from Rick and Jean-Paul both. This part of the plot seems less a glorification of cheating on your spouse and more a microcosm of one woman’s path through life.
The interweaving of past and present involves a kind of sympathetic magic that is closer to being fantasy than magical realism. It isn’t really one or the other, and I think that makes this novel more accessible than if it were strictly either fantasy or literary/magical-realist fiction. Why does Ella experience the same physical symptoms Isabelle does, centuries before? How much of her life is playing out simply to resolve Isabelle’s experiences? And is the ending of Isabelle’s story a key to why her female descendants are so closely tied to her? I find I’m equally satisfied whether I answer those questions (and the answers are there) or leave them ambiguous.
This was my first Tracy Chevalier book (it narrowly edged out Girl with a Pearl Earring for a spot on the list) and I will definitely be reading more.
Posted on: February 28th, 2011
Dogland by Will Shetterly
Category: Young Adult
I’m sometimes more critical of good books with big flaws than I am of really bad ones. With a good book, there’s always the sense that the flaws could have been avoided; that they’re more obvious when put in such close contrast with the good elements of the book. Dogland was one I knew would be worth reading and that I was prepared to really like, but from the very beginning there were too many problems to let me be truly happy with the book.
Dogland does have a lot of stellar qualities. Will Shetterly understands human nature and is good at showing it. He’s also good at dialect, something too many writers could stand to improve on. His descriptions are perfect, whether he’s talking about places, people, or events. I thought he captured Florida in the early ’60s very well. I also liked the narrator’s family, whose personalities and interactions felt very believable.
Shetterly also did a good job of introducing fantasy elements and characters into the story–a sort of gods in the modern world thing. I don’t have any complaints with those characters’ modern personae. But it drew attention to the first big problem with this novel, which is that there’s way too much meaning, too much symbolism, too much story for the book. There are plenty of hints at stories that never go anywhere, and most of those hints will go far, far over the head of the average young adult reader. So I really have to wonder what the point was? Was it a failed attempt at saying something about the nature of stories? Was he just showing off? If three major gods of the Norse pantheon drop by, I want to know why they’re in the story at all. Or Lucifer, who as Nick Lumiere doesn’t seem to do anything but slither around…never mind, that’s pretty accurate. It’s suggested that the garden of Eden is in Florida, and that’s why the Fountain of Youth is there as well, but Shetterly doesn’t actually do anything with it. These characters simply float around, living their own lives, and given how many hints Shetterly drops about their real identities, I call this a red herring. At the very least, it’s an inexplicable waste of robust mythological meaning.
One thing I really wish he’d done more with is Chris’s sister, Little Bit, who has the Sight. It’s never stated outright, and recognizing that she has it requires some experience with fantasy tropes, but her use of it is very well done. She’s a child, and she says what she sees, and everyone thinks she’s being imaginative or just wrong. Shetterly handled this very well, except for, again, not doing anything with it.
The main plot, as far as I can tell, is the effect the Civil Rights Movement has on the residents of this backwater Florida county. The narrator, Chris Nix, was born in the South, but his parents are Yankees and have the sort of liberal (in the classical sense) attitudes about slavery you would expect. They hire black workers and pay them the same as the white workers, they won’t let their kids treat blacks badly, etc. Over the course of the novel, tensions arise between the Nixes, the redneck racists, and the people who are somewhere in between. This main plot is so well handled that it’s yet another strike against including all those fantasy elements. There’s just no point to overburdening the story that much. The climactic scene actually combines the fantasy "plot" and the main plot, but because the story is so unwieldy, the climax lacks the kind of power it needs to have. I got to the end of the book with no idea what I was supposed to have thought of it, and since I usually don’t care about "supposed to," that’s saying a lot.
The rest of the gripes I have are smaller but extremely distracting. First of all, I can tell that Shetterly has no children of his own. The premise is that Chris is retelling these childhood events as an adult, but doing so by recounting what he knew and felt at the time (unless he explicitly says "I think this is what happened" or "I didn’t see this, but it probably went this way"). But it’s stated that Chris is four years old when he retells his earliest memories, and I guarantee you no four-year-old thinks that linearly or has that good a memory. What’s more, he supposedly remembers his youngest brother’s birth–and since his baby brother is two when Chris is four, that means Chris can remember *clearly* his two-year-old observations, and his sister, who is three when the story starts, is SPEAKING IN COMPLETE SENTENCES at one year of age. Hah. Not to mention that their poor mother has been pumping the sprogs out once a year for three years straight. Double hah. Chris’s age was dictated more by Shetterly’s need for him not to be in school at the beginning of the novel, but otherwise, if you assign the kids the more reasonable ages of 8, 6, and 2, you get behaviors that are consonant with their development. I would have been happier if I’d been able to ignore it, but the ages keep getting mentioned.
And Dogland. It’s a sort of theme park/living museum/petting zoo in which dogs of every conceivable breed are displayed, so people can be educated and entertained. Except–is it really likely that owners of pedigree dogs are going to loan out or rent out their dogs to a stranger, send them clear across the country and away from their homes? Really? This was easier to overlook, but still…really?
Ultimately, the greatest weakness of the novel is that Shetterly tried to do too much with it. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird without Harper Lee’s exquisite grasp of story, or it’s an American Gods without…well, whatever it is Neil Gaiman does in anything he writes, or it’s your standard ’60s-era anti-racism novel–but when it’s all three at once, it’s a mess. Shetterly’s personal philosophy as expressed by Chris’s father Luke leaves me cold, but the writing is excellent and it was a very interesting book. For once I think that being *less* aware of the subtext will be a plus for any reader giving this book a try. Let your teens read it, and don’t explain who Johnny Tepes is.
Posted on: February 26th, 2011
Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott
Category: Historical Fiction
I really love first novels. They have so much promise. L.M. Elliott is an experienced magazine writer, and Under a War-Torn Sky, her first novel, was inspired by her father’s experiences in World War II. The protagonist, Henry Forester, is a 19-year-old American boy who enlisted in the army after graduation from high school and became a bomber pilot, flying dangerous missions over Europe. On his fifteenth mission, in early 1944, his plane is shot down, and Henry is trapped behind enemy lines. When he makes his way into Switzerland, he’s offered a choice: stay in the dubious safety of the Swiss internment camps for the duration of the war, or make the dangerous journey to freedom so he can return to flying for the Allies. Henry chooses to run for it, and the rest of the novel is about his journey, the people he meets, and his journey to adulthood.
This really is an excellent book. Though Elliott’s writing needs refining in places, those places are far overshadowed by her skills in both characterization and plot development. She never stoops to cheap tricks to engage the reader’s emotion, though there were places I was afraid she might. In particular, Henry has a girl back home, Patsy, who he’s known forever and only just started to feel romantically for before he left. Then he meets a French girl, Claudette, who’s a member of the Resistance and reminds him a lot of Patsy. I was afraid Elliott would go for the soppy love triangle gambit, but instead she used Henry’s feelings for Claudette to strengthen how he feels about Patsy. Elliott also doesn’t try to resolve the fates of everyone Henry becomes attached to during his journey, which will frustrate some readers, but makes the whole thing seem more realistic; as Elliott writes in the Afterword, there were a lot of resistance fighters who simply disappeared on their missions, and no one ever knew their fates. Maybe the sequel deals with those people; I saw it at the last Scholastic sale and considered getting it, but it was still in hardcover and I hadn’t even read this one yet. Can’t wait to pick it up in May. I may appreciate the realism of not knowing what happened to little Pierre and his mom, but I’m not a total masochist.
Not enough WWII fiction, in my opinion, touches on the extraordinary bravery of the French resistance fighters, the maquis. France’s government knuckled under to the Germans so quickly that I think Americans often think of the French contribution to the war effort as negligent or nonexistent. Elliott’s novel brings to life those men and women who began rebelling against the Germans practically from the moment the first jackboot set foot on French soil–changing road signs, pretending not to understand instructions, and who knows how many other small acts of sabotage, leading up to the maquis organizations who received air-dropped material (even tanks!) from the Allies and went into action on D-Day, dividing the Germans’ attention from the troops landing on the beaches of Normandy. Henry moves through most of the novel vividly aware of how much he owes these people, which would make him a very disappointing protagonist if he wasn’t so active in aiding his own escape. I like also that he’s not the kind of person who thinks he knows better than the natives. That makes him way more sympathetic than he already is.
This is a young adult novel, and despite some fairly graphic moments (Henry is captured and tortured, and, well, it’s war) one that will be accessible to almost any teen reader. But the category is descriptive, not prescriptive; the best young adult fiction appeals to all ages because it is about what it means to be a young adult and to grow to adulthood, not because only teens will want to read it. I’d particularly recommend this to adult readers who enjoy stories of WWII but don’t care for the greater realism (in the sense of reproducing the language and graphic violence of the time) of most adult novels on the subject. An excellent novel, and I hope to see many more from L.M. Elliott on any subject.
Posted on: February 13th, 2011