Pearl's Picks for April
The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange - by Mark Barrowcliffe
It's not that angst-filled accounts of dysfunctional families, lousy childhoods, and the terrors of addiction aren't interesting to read about. It's more that sometimes you need a break and want to read a relatively trauma-free memoir. If that's the situation you find yourself in, check out Mark Barrowcliffe's The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange. With his clever title and frequently hilarious prose, Barrowcliffe details an adolescence that, if not entirely neurosis-free, never devolves into the oh-poor-me miasma that characterizes so many memoirs these days. In 1976, at age 12, as a geeky kid growing up in Coventry, England, Barrowcliffe discovered the charms of a recently invented (in 1974, by Gary Gygax) multi-player role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons. As he was introduced to the intricacies of its most notable aspect, the 20-sided die, Barrowcliffe was soon spending all his free time engaged in searching for treasure, amassing knowledge (in order to advance to a higher level), and fighting off enemies. As Barrowcliffe describes it, playing D&D not only widened his horizons by introducing him to boys far removed from his social and economic class, but mostly it got him through the horrors of being a boy who didn't fit in anywhere, particularly not at the all-boys school he attended. One of my favorite parts of the book is how he describes his parents' bemused reaction to his new hobby, and especially the time he casually asked his mother if he could have some friends over to play and several dozen boys ended up spending not only the day, but staying well into the night, scattered throughout the Barrowcliffe home, hunched over a D&D game. When I began this book, I knew just a tad about Dungeons & Dragons (I've never played it), and I found it fascinating to learn about its genesis and subsequent development, all from the point of view of a pretty normal (if geeky) kid, who would go out and spend his allowance on whatever new D&D addition was announced that month. Barrowcliffe is forgiving of the intense awkwardness of his teenage self--to the point of being able to laugh at himself about it--and we laugh along with him (even when we're wincing in sympathy over some of the events he describes).
In the Town All Year 'Round - by Rotraut Susanne Berner
It's hard to imagine a better picture book for helping children develop their powers of imagination than Rotraut Susanne Berner's chock-full-of-delights In the Town All Year 'Round. This oversize book is divided into four sections, one for each season of the year. Each section is introduced with pictures of the characters, both people and animals, who will appear on the following pages. (The Winter section, for example, introduces us to, among others, a mysterious motorcyclist, Pedro the guitar player, Olivia the avid reader, and Cassie the cat.) As young readers pore over each page, they'll find themselves making up stories about everyone and everything they see before them. And because there's so much happening on each page (a kindergarten is being built, a woman runs to catch her bus, a group of children visit a natural history museum, a nun loses hold of a penguin balloon, the wind turns an umbrella inside out, a little girl practices the piano), this is an endlessly fascinating book that changes in content every time you share it with a child. Children notice something different and "write" a new tale each time they pick the book up. The colorful, busy drawings may remind some readers of the Where's Waldo series by Martin Handford (another favorite of mine to share with young readers) or the always-popular Richard Scarry titles.
My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge - by Paul Guest
Suggest this title for purchase.
The poems in Paul Guest's My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge are astounding and unforgettable. They all reflect (either obviously or more subtly) a central fact of the author's life--that a bicycle accident at age 12 left him permanently paralyzed. In his poems, Guest uses everyday language and straightforward diction--there's no attempt to puzzle or frustrate the reader. The undeniable power of the poems comes from the accumulation of detail that Guest uses. As he explores his feelings at forever being set apart from those who are able to move their bodies at will, Guest's tone is sometimes colored by anger and bitterness, and sometimes by a sadness so deep and pervasive that his poems are literally painful to read. Here's how the poem "Bad Mood" begins:
Bad mood and bad dog and bad luck like
my broken neck or heart or head
playing out so much bad weather
like kinked yarn unraveled by a bad
black cat, which summons luck again,
that diffident lover half naked in the dark.
And here's the start of "My Life Among":
I'm beginning to dream of my life among
the ornamental, the vaguely functional,
the doorsteps and paperweights, my tenure
in the legion of lawn gnomes, my brotherhood with novelty decanters,
my solidarity with the generally useless, the inscrutably devised,
the deformed idea, the Elvis clock,
the flea market phantasm, the broken
stapler clicking toothlessly, the pen caddy unpenned,
"Vaguely functional"--wow--what a thing to say about yourself. Once you start with the first of these remarkable poems, "Users Guide to Physical Debilitation," I don't think you'll be able to put the book down.
Rapunzel's Revenge - by Jack Fredrickson
Remember Rapunzel from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale? It's the one in which a witch locks a beautiful girl away in a high tower, and only the fact of her long (and strong) hair allows a handsome prince to climb up and rescue her. In their comical graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge, the husband and wife writing team of Shannon and Dean Hale take that classic fairy tale and turn it into a good-humored and swashbuckling adventure story set in the untamed Wild West (or, rather, a somewhat loopy version of the Wild West), starring a daring and resourceful Rapunzel. When Rapunzel learns that Gothel, the woman she knew as her mother, had in fact stolen her as a young child from her real parents, Gothel locks her in a room at the top of a tall tree in the middle of a forest. But there's no way that this Rapunzel is going to sit back and wait to be rescued by a prince, handsome or not. She'll do her own rescuing, thank you very much. And she'll be reunited with her real mother and vanquish that old wicked witch, Gothel, too. Along the way, Rapunzel meets Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and the two set out on a series of rip-roarin' adventures to right the wrongs of the world. What makes this story even more fun is the interplay between the words and the illustrations--done in comic book style--by Nathan Hale. The Hales (writers) are not related to Hale (the illustrator), but when it comes to their collaboration on Rapunzel's Revenge, they're totally on the same page.
Tinkers - by Paul Harding
Sometimes good things really do arrive in small packages. That's certainly the case with Paul Harding's first novel, Tinkers. At only a very brief 192 pages, it still packs an emotional punch that books three times its length often lack. It's a novel that you'll want to savor for its stunning yet economical use of language, for its descriptions of nature, illness, and health, and for its profound understanding of humanity's deepest needs and desires for family and home. I found reading it to be an incredibly moving experience, yet Harding is in such control of his material that it never devolves into mushiness or becomes maudlin. George Washington Crosby has spent his entire adult life tinkering with and repairing the most intricate of clocks. Now, lying close to death in his own home, surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren, George's thoughts drift between the present and the past. He thinks back to his chaotic childhood as the eldest child of a traveling salesman whose success in life was severely limited by his epilepsy, he muses on his mother, a woman worn down by her fate as the wife of a failure, and he reconsiders his own life as a man, a husband, and a father. If I could choose two chapters to read aloud--and this book begs to be read aloud--one would be the account of George's father's strange, once-a-year meeting with a hermit residing deep in the woods, and the other would be the description of how to build a nest. Together, it seems to me, they encapsulate Harding's worldview.
Addition - by Toni Jordan
If you were to ask me how many words there are in Toni Jordan's satisfying debut novel Addition, I'd check the number of pages, count the number of lines on enough pages and the number of words on enough lines to get reasonably accurate averages, and then multiply the three numbers. The answer (say, 272 pages, by about 30 lines per page, by about 11 words per line equals about 90,000 words) would, in my view, be close enough for all practical purposes. If you were to ask Grace Lisa Vandenburg, who tells her own story in Addition, that same question, whatever your practical purpose, she would not be happy (or comfortable) with "all practical purposes." Instead, she would count every word on every page, coming up with the exact number. Grace has long been obsessed with counting--even as a child, her favorite toy was not her Barbie doll, but a set of Cuisenaire rods; her hero is inventor Nikola Tesla, whose life was also consumed by his love of numbers and counting. She's been forced to give up her teaching job because she cannot stop herself from counting, whether it be the number of steps from her bed to the bathroom (25), the number of books on each shelf in her bookcase (30), or the number of slices she cuts each onion (10) and carrot (10) into for her dinner. Grace believes in sticking to the rules she's set up for herself; as she says, "Who knows what could happen if I start making arbitrary decisions and upset the synchronized pattern of the universe?" But sometimes a spanner in the works disrupts the orderliness of the universe--and into Grace's ever so ordered life comes Seamus Joseph O'Reilly (whose name has 19 letters, just like Grace's), who encourages her to overcome her "quirk" with the help of a therapist, and live a more normal life--with him. Jordan has given us a sympathetic and realistic picture of a young woman struggling to remain herself, even when that self is not deemed by society to be precisely normal. Grace's voice is what drew me into Addition and kept me reading--I cared about her dilemma and wanted for her what she wanted for herself--to be happy.
A Most Wanted Man: A Novel - by John Le Carré
I don't do a lot of rereading these days (time is short and the world of new books that I want to read and include in Pearl's Picks is large), but an author whose books I find myself returning to time and again is John Le Carré. My absolute favorite is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I also love The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener, Smiley's People, A Perfect Spy; really, pretty much all his novels (except The Honourable Schoolboy, which I remember as being so unbearably sad that I've never been able to bring myself to pick it up again). I reread Le Carré so often because I appreciate (and share) his jaundiced view of human motives (especially when it comes to the machinations of governments) and enjoy watching how that all plays out within the intricate plots he dreams up. From his early novels on, he's made no effort to hide his skepticism and disapproval regarding many of the sub-rosa activities carried out by Her Majesty's spy service, Britain's MI6, nor his frequent unhappiness about MI6's relationship with their American "cousins" (that would be our CIA). Bush administration supporters be forewarned: in this book, like his last one, Le Carré makes no secret of the fact that he despises what America's government has been up to in its effort to deal with the threat of international terrorism in the post 9/11 world. In A Most Wanted Man, Le Carré plays with a convention that Alfred Hitchcock also favored--that of the innocent man caught up in events that threaten will either make him or break him. Issa, an illegal Muslim immigrant, half-Russian, half-Chechen, arrives in Hamburg, Germany, stating that his only desire is to become a doctor so he can return to Chechnya and practice medicine among those who need him most. His world collides with Tommy Brue's when Annabel, a young, idealistic, and very attractive German civil-rights lawyer who is working to prevent Issa's deportation by the German government, discovers that Issa has evidence linking his father, a former Soviet general, with Tommy's father, who began Brue Frères, a private British bank now located in Hamburg. Soon the representatives of various national spy services begin to gather. Is Issa who he says he is, or is he part of a terrorist plot to wreak havoc and rain death on western countries? The Germans, nervous about young Muslim illegals, want him off their soil as quickly as possible. They're especially sensitive about the fact that he's come to Hamburg, since many of the terrorists involved in 9/11 lived, and planned their terrorist activities, in that city. The British government wants to use Issa for their own ends, while the Americans know in their heart of hearts he's lying from the word go. The novel, like all of Le Carré's oeuvre, is both suspenseful and cynical. I found that I dreaded turning every page because I was afraid of what was going to happen to Tommy, Annabel, and Issa, but I couldn't stop reading it.
Revelation- by C.J. Sansom
Every fiction writer not only has to bring the setting of his work to life, but must convince the reader that the story and characters make sense for that time and place. For writers who choose to write about the distant past, this usually requires a great deal of research, in order to ensure that both the plot and dialogue are believable in the context of that time period, as well as avoiding any anachronisms. (You can't have an 18th-century murderer being found guilty by a jury as a result of DNA testing, to give a blatant example.) Revelation, C. J. Sansom's fourth novel featuring Matthew Shardlake, is a model for aspiring historical novelists and an enormous pleasure for historical fiction readers. Set during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, Sansom uses the beliefs and events of the time to create an exciting (and occasionally gruesome) mystery. Court politics and serial murder both come within Shardlake's purview in Revelation. The year is 1543, and King Henry VIII, desperately in love with the widowed Catherine Parr, is hoping to make her his sixth wife. While the machinations of a royal courtship--and one with deep consequences for the religious life of England--proceed, a particularly vicious killer (one who is taking his cues from the biblical Book of Revelation) sets off on his murderous path, with his first victim being one of Matthew's closest friends, a fellow lawyer. At the same time, Matthew is representing the interests of a young man whose religious fervor has gotten him locked up in Bedlam, and whose release might mean that he's burned at the stake by the conservatives fighting for domination of the Church of England. When I finished this mystery, I felt that I knew enough about 16th-century London not only to be able to find my way around that rapidly growing city, but that I qualified for an advanced degree in Tudor history. I'm in awe of Sansom's talents as an historical novelist. This is the first of the Shardlake novels that I've read, but Samsom includes enough of his main character's backstory in this volume so as to make that not a problem. I was, however, left with enough curiosity that I've put the three earlier books in the series on reserve at the library, and am eagerly waiting for them to arrive.
The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel - by Diane Setterfield
I don't know why I put off reading Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale for so long. Maybe it just didn't seem necessary, since a good part of what I try to do is suggest under-the-radar books to readers who might miss them otherwise, and nearly everyone I knew was already telling me that I had to read Setterfield's novel. Then I was on a radio show with author Orson Scott Card, and he said that The Thirteenth Tale was one of the best books he'd read in the last decade, and that pushed me over the edge. I began it on a cross-country plane trip (a risky time to start a new book--but of course I had back-ups), and for one whole week I could barely wait to get back to my hotel room after a long day of work in order to immerse myself in the story again. As I thought about it later, I could see some of Setterfield's influences: the mesmerizing spookiness of Daphne du Maurier's fiction, a trace of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre in the heroine, and the excitement of the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart, but Setterfield adds her own distinct spin to the genre of gothic fiction. Aging writer Vida Winter--famous author of a collection of enchanting tales--has been playing with would-be biographers for years, giving each of them a different version of her past. Enter quiet and introspective biographer Margaret Lea, the über-bookish daughter of a bookseller, whom Vida unaccountably invites to Angelfield, her home in Yorkshire, to write the authorized story of her life. As Margaret begins to sort out the truth of Vida's past, she discovers a convoluted tale of fraught family life, which includes twin daughters, obsessive love, a ghost, a governess, and a fire that would eventually destroy almost everything but memory. As Margaret makes her way through the thickets of Vida's past, she is forced to face the ghosts that have dogged her own life.
Whatever Makes You Happy: A Novel - by Geoff Nicholson
Is there any phrase, when spoken by a parent to a child, more potentially ambiguous than "whatever makes you happy"? It could be taken as a straightforward expression of the wish for your happiness. And isn't that a sentiment that we all want from our parents? But it could also have a subtext: "Of course, I only want for you whatever makes you happy, but I know better than you what that is, so if you'd just do what I want you'll be happy. I'm sure of it." That latter sentiment (thinly veiled as the former) is the metaphorical engine driving the entertaining plot of William Sutcliffe's Whatever Makes You Happy. Carol, Helen, and Gillian, who have been friends since their sons were babes in arms, share similar frustrations with their now 34-year-old offspring. These stalwart young men are not only not married (and, therefore, offer no prospect of grandchildren), but they seldom bother to call (not even for the de rigueur holidays, like Mother's Day), they're not interested in sharing their experiences, and, since each left home, not one has ever expressed any interest whatsoever in a nice long visit from their mothers. So the three moms decide to take matters into their own hands: each one--with no advance warning--will drop in on her son for a week's stay, or at least until she's finally come to understand her son's choices and decisions. Naturally, the unexpected arrival (and protracted visit) of their mothers means there are radical changes ahead for Paul, Matt, and Daniel. Both mothers and sons (and even fathers and daughters) will enjoy this often hilarious tale (there's a wonderful scene at a cocktail party that I still chuckle over), in which Sutcliffe reaffirms the central place that mothers and sons have in each other's lives.