Friday, August 31, 2007

Grace Paley, 1922-2007

It's been a hectic few weeks in our household, and it was only today that I heard of writer Grace Paley's death last week. The New York Times printed a moving and literary obituary. If you've never read any of her writing, this is a great introduction, quoting some of the most delicious bits from her short stories and giving a great sense of Paley as an activist as well.

Paley never wrote for children (though her friend and sometime collaborator, Vera B. Williams, did and still does), but her stories have the honesty and immediacy that I associate with the best writing for kids, and there are kids all over them: dumping sand on each other in the park; riding daredevil between subway cars; carried on their fathers' shoulders, and always, always, worried over and talked about and arguing with the mothers who are the heroes of most of her writing.

It's killing me right now that I can't find in our box-stacked living room a copy of Paley's first book, The Little Disturbances of Man, which includes the first short story of hers that I ever read, "The Loudest Voice." It's the story of a little girl, Shirley Abromovitz, who gets a coveted part in the Christmas pageant at her (circa 1930's, somewhere in New York City) school. You see, she has the loudest voice: so strong and clear it can peel the paper off Campbell's soup cans, so she's a cinch for the narrator's role in the school's annual reenactment of the Nativity story.

Naturally, Shirley's mom and several of the other parents in her Jewish neighborhood are horrified at this "creeping pogrom" of a public-school activity. But theirs isn't the only opinion; Shirley herself is thrilled, and her dad is encouraging, and the conclusion is more nuanced than anything I've read before or since on the whole Jewish-kid-at-Christmas topic. The important and unquenchable thing is, indeed, Shirley's voice; at the end, after her triumph in the pageant, she hunkers down and prays for everyone: her family near and far, her teachers, and "all the lonesome Christians." She's sure her prayers will be heard: "my voice was certainly the loudest."

Paley herself has quite the voice, zippy and sneaky; she started off as a poet, and it shows. Her verbal path is loopy but at the same time direct--straight to the heart. She's a master of first lines. One story starts out: "There were two husbands disappointed by eggs. One was livid and one was pallid." The narrator refers to the two men as Livid and Pallid throughout the rest of the story. (Not surprisingly, neither of them comes off very well, either as a husband or as a dad.)

After reading and admiring her since high school, I got to see her in person, once. The Seattle Arts and Lectures series hosted an evening with Grace Paley and Anne Lamott, a possibly inspired combination that nonetheless was pretty much a disaster as far as literary events go (Anne Lamott wrote about it in Salon here, and also in one of her recent books). They tried for an unscripted discussion, which resulted in Anne Lamott, nervous and fast-wired, stepping into any pause before Grace Paley got a chance to say much. As the evening wore on and Lamott got more visibly anxious about how it was going, she only talked faster, until I thought the audience would start throwing things.

I only remember one thing Grace Paley said that evening, but it was worth the price of the ticket all by itself: one audience member asked what advice she would give to a new writer, and she said that she would give the same advice she gave her writing students: "Keep a low overhead, and don't live with anyone who doesn't respect your work." Nothing about "write what you know," or "kill your babies"--just smart common (or maybe not so common) sense on how to live and survive as a writer.

Grace Paley always struck me as one of a very few people (Jessica Mitford was another, and maybe Molly Ivins too) who managed pull off three tough feats simultaneously: she knew how to have great time in life; she stayed committed to serious political activism over several decades; and while she was at it, she wrote some kickass books. Not too shabby. But I wish she'd had just a little more time to do all those things.

Her voice will be remembered. It might not have been the loudest, but it was, and is, one of the strongest.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Els Kushner Does Love Moxy Maxwell

I usually spend the last weeks of school brainstorming with classes to get their picks for great summer reads (so much more effective than suggestions from adults), and by mid-June, what with the kid recommendations and the review journals and the blogs and the catalogs, I've got a sizeable To Be Read list of my own. This year my self-assigned summer reading list looked like this:
  • Specials
  • Heat and/or Travel Team
  • So Totally Emily Ebers
  • Rickshaw Girl
  • Vive La Paris
  • Gilda Joyce
  • Peaches
  • Shackleton’s Stowaway
  • The Glass Castle
  • Key to the Golden Firebird
  • The Jew Store (adult)
  • Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
  • Twilight
  • Kiki Strike
  • Weedflower
  • Year of the Rat
  • The Green Glass Sea
  • Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
  • Julia’s Kitchen
  • Ruby Lu
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Between Mom and Jo
  • Dairy Queen
  • Plain JANEs
  • Total Constant Order
  • The Mislaid Magician
  • Emma jean lazarus fell out of a tree
  • Moxy Maxwell Does NOT Love Stuart Little
The five bolded books are ones I have read as of this moment. Please note that today's date is August 15, and thus summer is roughly 3/4 over. Also please note that 5/28 is nowhere near 3/4.

And so I feel for poor Moxy Maxwell, whose tale of woe and required summer reading I just finished half an hour ago (while I was supposed to be doing something else. But that's another story). Summer slips by so fast, with so many projects to accomplish, and in the blink of an eye it's the last day of vacation, and even though you've been carrying around Stuart Little all summer--and, as we all know, carrying a project around is practically the same thing as actually doing it--the actual reading-the-book part has not exactly happened.

I expected to love this book, having read so many enthusiastic reviews in the past few months. And so indeed it was. What I didn't expect was that it would be so suspenseful that, even though I had managed to restrain myself from skipping ahead throughout the 600+ pages [Canadian pagination] of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I cheated and jumped to the end of this 92-pager because I could not stand one more moment of not knowing whether Moxy's mother would really, truly keep her from performing in the Goodbye to Summer Splash daisy-petal water ballet, as was the threatened consequence if Moxy did not finish Stuart Little by 6:00.

The result left me feeling for Moxy's mother as much as for the title character herself, fellow book-lover and fellow procrastinator that she is. And it left me feeling lucky that my own reading list is made up of books that I chose myself. And that there are still a few weeks left for me to stay up late on hot summer nights getting lost in them.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Don't Toss That Coin inThe Well: Verdigris Deep

Everyone--well, everyone who's ever heard or read any fantasy or folklore, or who has any common sense, for that matter--knows how dangerous it is to make a wish; how the wish, if granted by a god or elf or genie or pixie, is almost always distorted, twisted, turned against the wisher.

But what of the wish-granters?

That's the question Frances Hardinge asks in Verdigris Deep, and she goes deep with it. Hardinge's first novel, Fly By Night, gathered many genres--alternate history, adventure, coming of age, political intrigue--into its capacious (maybe too capacious) embrace, but managed to avoid the one she delves into here: creepy, creepy horror. Like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, with which it's sure to be compared many times, Verdigris Deep pits a trio of troubled adolescents against the raw, living forces of an ancient mythology, forcing them to confront the deepest and most secret recesses of the human heart.

How'd that be for jacket-flap copy? But it's all true. Horror is not so much my thing, and if Fly by Night hadn't been one of my very favorite books read last year (it wasn't everyone's, I know, but it was mine) I probably wouldn't have gone near this one. But there it was, sitting
on the bookstore table, and my hand just went for it. Almost without my control. Ooo, spooky, and so much like this book. I couldn't even bring myself to read it at night. When our hero, Ryan, got those weird itchy bumps on his hands and they turned into--oh, I can't tell you what they turned into but believe me it will give you the willies--and then the well witch started showing up on posters in tunnels, streaming water from her eyes, and then the creepy Miss Gossamer showed her true colors, well it's a good thing there was bright daylight outside or I would have lost even more sleep than I did last week.

For plot, I'll tell you what the back-cover copy told me: three kids steal some coins from a well for bus fare, and are then forced to serve the god ("well witch" is what the back cover says, but really she's a god, that's clear) responsible for granting the wishes each coin represents. It's pitched creepy, and it reads creepy. But there's more here. This book is more compact and less picaresque than Fly By Night; page by page I'm not sure that I enjoyed it more, because it's not my favorite genre, but I think it might be a stronger book. Hardinge doesn't mess around this time having fun with made-up worlds, just goes straight for the heart with a pick-axe. Man, she's good.

I can't decide yet if there's too much troubled-family problem-novel psychological stuff in the book or not. You get right away that Ryan's parents are part of his issue: his mom writes "unauthorized biographies" that get her stalked by her subjects, and does bad-fictional-parent stuff like making Ryan wear his contact lenses instead of the glasses he prefers when reporters come to the house to interview her; she and Ryan's dad alternate between bickering and icy silence, which drives Ryan batty. And Ryan's friends' parents wouldn't win any functional-family awards either: Josh is a charismatic budding juvenile delinquent whose folks punish him for his frequent misbehavior by banishing him from the house; and Chelle is all but ignored by her family, which might be one reason she keeps up a constant torrent of chat, in hopes of catching someone's attention even for a moment.

But the family psychology is part of Hardinge's point, not tacked on but integral. As our three protagonists blunder through the summer, desperately trying to grant wishes, they gradually realize what the Well Spirit cannot: not only can wishes turn against those who make them, but each wish has an unspoken component, born of the wisher's deepest unacknowledged yearnings, and granting these can be even more disastrous than making the intended wish come true.

Ryan lays out the heart of the novel when he tries to explain to Chelle that wishes are "sort of like conkers [chestnuts]...There's an outer bit which is what the wish seems to be, but there's another bit inside which is kind of the real wish...And I don't think when most people wish, they really know what they're wishing. It's like they only see the green spiky outer bit." The ancient Well Spirit, he goes on, "doesn't really get the green spiky bits of their wishes...But the shiny nut bit of wishes, she gets that, kind of. She can help with that. Because those are the great big, painful, simple wishes, you see. Life. Death. Love. Revenge. She gets that."

Hardinge, it's clear, gets that too. Not to give too much away, but some of these wishes--past and present--are the hard, real, unpretty deal, and I wouldn't recommend this book to readers much younger than ten, or maybe eleven, unless I knew them (and their parents) quite well. Or unless they'd already read The Owl Service or Margaret Mahy's The Changeover and come out the other side unscathed.

I can't wrap this up without mentioning Hardinge's way with language, which outshone all the plot baubles in Fly By Night and which illuminates the murky relationships here: When Ryan's mum prepares him for a visiting reporter, "Ryan could feel his mother's fingers pulling and poking at him as they had the orchid. He sometimes wondered whether she thought that if she tugged at him for long enough she would end up with something more interesting." Chelle offhandedly complains about what it's like "when somebody's watching you and you can feel it like dead leaves down the back of your jumper..."Of Magwhite, the town where the fateful well is located: "Nobody could quite remember which, but something had happened to give the name 'Magwhite' ugly edges. If Magwhite was mentioned, parents' faces stiffened as if they had picked up a bad smell."

There are also some nice funny bits, and several adults have their own surprises in store; it's always a relief to see kids' books where the grownups turn out to be flawed human beings rather than caricatures.

All in all: if you liked Fly By Night, try this one. If you didn't like Fly By Night, try this one too, as it is utterly different in its particulars. Either way, watch for more by Frances Hardinge; her first two books, put together, are a pretty powerhouse combination, and I wish (uh-oh) I could read whatever else she's got in store.