Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Heroines and Walking the Gobi

The Heroines by Eileen Favorite is the story of Penny Entwhistle and her mother, Ann Marie, who run a unique bed and breakfast that serves as a refuge for heroines from classic literature who need some tea and sympathy before they disappear back into their storylines.
Penny is a teenager in the 1970s (as was I) and as she tries to find her way through the labyrinth of hormones and emotions, she encounters jealousy of her mothers time spent with one particular heroine, Deidre, whose paramour, the King of Ulster, kidnaps Penny in the woods and stirs her passions as well as roughing her up a bit. When Penny breaks her mothers rules and tells police who it is who kidnapped her, her mother signs her into a loony bin, just to "keep her safe" while she deals with this problematic heroine and Conor the king.
Penny's time in the mental ward reads a lot like One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest for the Girl Interrupted crowd, but when Conor breaks Penny out of the ward, everything comes right again and Penny and her mother deal with some long-overdue family issues right before the HEA.
I enjoyed this book, and felt very akin to Penny, as my mother probably would have done the same thing to me, had I been in Penny's dire straights. Still, it annoyed me that Ann Marie was so blind to her daughters changing needs and desires, and so easily influenced by greedy doctors that she'd allow her daughter to be locked up and mistreated. I found the encounters with the heroines, such as Scarlett OHara, Emma Bovary and Zoey to be fascinating reading, fun and interesting in allowing us a peek behind the curtains of their particular dramas.
I would recommend this book to any teenager who has wondered about the life of heroines in literature, what they'd be like if one ever encountered them in person, and whether or not they're really as much of a heroine as portrayed by their authors.

Walking the Gobi, by Helen Thayer, is a non fiction book I read for my book group, and I gather we can meet the author at the Covington Library next month.
I found this story, of 63 year old Helen and her 75 year old husband, traversing the Gobi desert in Mongolia to be surprisingly riveting reading. Thayer and her husband have also hiked mountains, crossed Death Valley and traversed the 4,000 mile Sahara desert in Africa prior to this trip, so they were well aware of the hazards of extreme weather and waterless climate.
Yet though both were in a car accident just prior to the trip, Helen insists on walking the Gobi with a bum leg because she doesn't want to disappoint her husband. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Mongolian people, their culture and food, their kindness and ever present hospitality to strangers. The Thayers are assisted by desert nomads and eventually assist one nomadic family in need, and it is hard for the reader to not get misty-eyed over the joy that is had by both parties.
I enjoyed Thayer's tight, poetic prose and her reporter-like determination to record the facts and happenstance of their trip. Though they are seniors, Helen and her husband are heroes and tough as they come, a real inspiration to those who aspire to challenge themselves physically and mentally against the elements of nature.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Libraries, The Art of Racing in the Rain and Runemarks

Louise Brown, a 91-year-old Scottish woman "is believed to be Britain's
most prolific library book reader," according to the Guardian
Brown is on the verge of borrowing her 25,000th book.

Hurrah for Ms. Brown, a woman after my own heart. I should mention that I am attempting to get a position at my local library, in hopes of combining my passion for books with my devotion to the one stable place in my life. Though we moved every couple of years when I was a child, my mother never failed to take me to the local library first, so that I could get my own library card and start digging into the stacks. Because she read to me from the moment she brought me home from Henry County Memorial Hospital, I learned to read by the time I was 4 and, as I was a child with severe asthma who couldn't play outside often, like other kids, I read books and traveled in my mind to exotic locales.

I didn't have to go far for the exotic in "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein, because his book takes place in Seattle and Mercer Island, WA.
Though I am not a fan of anthropomorphizing animals, as I've noted here before, I found Enzo to be a wonderful protagonist, full of simple wisdom and loving compassion. It stretched my credulity and suspension of disbelief to the max, however, considering the realistic setting and the plot and events laid out by Mr Stein. Enzo manages to see his owner, Denny Swift, through the death of his wife (from cancer), the custody battle for his daughter with his in-laws and a disastrous accusation of sexual misconduct with a teenage girl. Through it all, Enzo is the only member of the family who knows exactly what is going on, who to trust, who is evil and wrong (mainly by scent) and who needs him to intervene, as he does when Denny is about to sign away his right to parent his daughter.
Sadly, Enzo is old by the end of the book (the book actually begins with Enzo discussing how much of a relief it will be to die because he has hip displasia and is in pain as well as embarrassed at his inability to stand and go outside to void his bladder) and there are pages of tear-jerking reflection before Enzo actually dies on his own, his owner having been too much of a spineless wimp to have him euthenized, which would have been the merciful thing to do.
Yet despite all the death and sadness in the book, I enjoyed the dog's POV, the wise and insightful aspect he lent to human interactions in the book, and the gentle advice to live an authentic life that was apparent in all of Enzo's monologues. His joy in the simple act of being a passenger in a fast car was exhilarating, and his explanation of why he enjoyed it, wonderful. There were several funny moments, like when Enzo tears Zoeys toys to shreds because he is sure that the stuffed Zebra is "evil," or when he deficates on the in-laws carpet because they treat him like a dumb animal, not realizing that he is as intelligent as any human, and could prove it if he had those wonderful primate opposable thumbs!
Stein's prose was vital and almost poetic at times, reminding me of F Scott Fitzgerald in its rich emotional landscape. His plot, though methodical, would have moved faster had he not indulged in so much racing research that he felt it necessary to explain, in detail, the traditions, track conditions and other aspects of stock car and formula one racing. For those of us who are not into cars, those pages dragged the story down to a near-standstill. Fortunately, Stein doesn't do that often enough to spoil the entire novel, and the book moves briskly in its latter half to a splendid HEA.
I would recommend this novel to dog lovers and those who enjoy unusual philosophers.

"Runemarks" is Joanne Harris' only young adult novel that I know of, and I was fascinated by her Neil Gaimen-esque take on old Norse mythology.
The tale involves a teenager named Maddy who has a magical gift, but has learned to hide it lest she lose her life to the "Order" a group of religious fanatics and scholars who have cornered the market on magic and runes, forbidding its use to anyone but those indoctrinated into their circles.
Maddy is brought up by well-meaning, if somewhat dense and cruel people who allow her to learn from an old one-eyed traveling "outlander" who visits Maddy's hometown once a year and imparts magic lessons to her, as well as teaching her the Norse myths and rune lore. What she doesn't know is that one-eye is actually the all-father, Odin, and that she is his granddaughter by Thor, his son. Soon Loki, god of mischief, lies and trouble makes an appearance, and Maddy becomes embroiled in a war to save the old gods from destruction by the Order, and their leader, the Nameless, who seeks ultimate power over the world.
Having read, and adored all of Joanne Harris' novels (with one exception, I didn't like Gentlemen and Players) I was thrilled to read her foray into the YA world dominated by Tolkien, JK Rowling, Jane Yolen and Neil Gaiman. I was surprised that she chose Norse myths to update, as Harris has shown a predilection for all things French and European in her previous books. But we are treated to the same well-researched mileau and full-bodied characters here that Harris has drawn for us in her adult literature, so I find that I am happy to see her branching out into new territory. Loki gets more sympathy in Runemarks than he's ever gotten in the original myths and legends, and the female gods don't get any sympathy at all, coming off as cold and cruel or stupid and capricious for the most part. Yet I enjoyed this book and its saucy and bright young protagonist, who refuses to give up on Loki even after his death. I would recommend this book to anyone 13 and over who is fascinated by mythology and magic.