Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At Forty-Five, I'm Finally Ready: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

My parents gave me my own copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child. This was actually unusual for them--they gave me remarkably few books considering what a ravenous reader I was. I was a real library kid.

The irony was that, at age 9, Huck totally stumped me. I read some of it--I was the kind of kid who would read a cereal box if there wasn't a book in front of me--but I didn't like it. It made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't know how to process it, and I really couldn't relate to Huck. I mean, Tom Sawyer, sure, he acted wild, but I knew he was a regular kid underneath, and that Becky Thatcher would eventually tame him even if Aunt Polly couldn't. But Huck lived on riverboats and in forests, didn't wash, had a seriously evil father, and seemed unlikely to become a banker or a lawyer when he grew up. I was the kind of kid who would have begged the Widow Douglas to take me in and civilize me if I were in Huck's shoes, but Huck rejected civilization to the end. What's more, he saw through it, or partly did, or should have, in ways that I wasn't ready for. His life was edgy, and I was scared to live it, even vicariously.

It's taken me quite a while to return to Huck, but this summer at the cottage my husband read it aloud to me over the course of two weeks. And it was so wonderful--we were intensely engaged and it provoked much discussion and emotion between us. There were times when the tension ran so high I couldn't listen any more, and other times when I wouldn't let Doug stop reading. I loved the outrageously brilliant language and the sense of place and Twain's ability to be so side-splittingly funny but also so dark and daring. There is a sense of innovation that comes through fresh and strong, even though Huckleberry Finn is over a hundred and twenty years old. This is definitely a book which rewards reading aloud, especially by a reader who is good with dialect and expression.

But what kept us both glued to the book and kept it alive for us afterwards was the way Huck's story was twined in with Jim, the runaway slave. Jim unsettles everything and turns what might be a "boy's own" style adventure into something real and serious. Jim is the vehicle for Huck's growth but also shows us Huck's limits. Their relationship is complicated and I, as a modern reader, often felt that Huck was letting Jim down in ways he didn't seem to even understand. The episodes where Huck would end up leaving Jim alone on the raft (or worse) without a thought for days or even weeks at a time drove me insane. Likewise the nightmare fact that their trip wasn't taking them in the direction that Jim needed to go to attain his goal of freedom, and Huck wasn't doing much about it. The times when Huck considered turning Jim in to the authorities felt like real threats to me as well. As much as Huck and Jim are companions, Huck just never seemed intellectually capable of challenging the idea of slavery as a social institution. So frustrating! But there is a genuine closeness between them despite all this, and I found it moving how Jim slowly lets Huck know more about his inner life, his wife and children and how constantly they are in his thoughts.

Reading it now, I understand why this was over my head thirty-five years ago. I'm left wondering--is this really a children's book?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen

"Heaven laughs at me every day."

Jerk, California is a debut novel for Jonathan Friesen, and one of the books I read over my recent vacation. It was a great holiday read, with an interesting hook (a narrator with Tourette Syndrome), and a vacation-appropriate road trip plot. To me, this book had a really masculine feel--not in a "macho" sense, exactly, but in a more philosophical, "what makes one a man" sense, which I think is one of the interesting questions of our time. There is a strength to this book and to its protagonist Jack, and it is a pleasure to watch that strength unfold. Jerk, California is a quest story that digs deeper than the where-can-I-find-some-self-esteem journey that many teen books take us on. Jack's journey is about character.

Jerk, California tells the story of 17-year-old Sam Carrier, a young man with Tourette Syndrome who feels like, and is generally treated as, a freak. Sam, with his twitches and jerks and occasional bouts of spontaneous cursing (usually at the worst possible time) is incredibly self-conscious and pessimistic about himself in terms of relationships--any relationships, not just romantic ones. Sam's father James died in an accident when Sam was a baby, and his mother, perhaps the only person on earth who loves him, nevertheless fails to protect him from his nasty obsessive-compulsive stepfather Bill. Sam's self-loathing comes largely from Bill's and his classmates' jeering reactions to his Tourettes but also from the stories he has been told about his dead father, who, according to his stepfather, was a worthless, womanizing alcoholic who wouldn't even hold his infant son.

Everything begins to change for Sam the day he leaves home to work for George, a master gardener and his late father's best friend. George insists that Sam's real name is Jack Keegan (Bill had changed Jack's name when he entered their family--can you say "control freak"?) and he wants Jack to hear a different version of his family past. George dies, but before he does, he plans a road trip where Jack can meet some of his father's friends and finally his grandmother, who lives in Jerk, California. Jack takes the trip along with a young woman, Naomi, who has some tough problems of her own to work out and needs some thinking time.

I love how Friesen peopled his book with such strongly drawn and believable characters. Not just Jack, whose head we truly enter, but so many minor characters feel very real. Jack's stepfather is a horrid person who beats his wife and spews bile at Jack on a daily basis, but Jack carries around two childhood memories of this man's kindness to him, and these small memories help us, and Jack, see Bill in a more complex way. James turns out to have been a loving family man, a fact that proves tremendously healing for Jack. In fact, one of the few things I found difficult to accept in this book was how Jack's mother could have chosen two such opposite men to marry--James, with his kindness, strength, and principles, and Bill, with his petty mind and explosive temper. You'd think that her relationships with James would have made her quicker to blow the whistle on Old Bill. When she finally does leave, baby son in tow, Bill is finally seen as the real failure in terms of manhood. As Jack finally realizes, Bill is "all lies".

Jerk, California makes me want to read more Friesen. I'll be waiting in line for the next book.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hanging Out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators

I've suspected for a long time now that one of the chief pleasures of being a creative person must be getting to work with other creative types. This book of interviews confirms my suspicion. Joseph McCabe has assembled an extremely readable and comprehensive look at Gaiman's body of work and working style based on interviews with twenty-seven artists, writers and musicians that Gaiman has collaborated with over the span of his career. Some, such as Tori Amos, Terry Pratchett, or Dave McKean, are widely known, while others are more obscure (such as Todd Klein, who has lettered many of Gaiman's comics). Taken together, they present an intelligent, detailed, generously illustrated, and intimate portrait of Gaiman's literary legacy-in-the-making.

I predict this is both the first and last time a book on my blog gets to claim this honour, but Hanging Out with the Dream King was nominated in its year of release (2005) for both the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award.

Could I be going Goth?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Swim the Fly; or, How to See Your First Real Live Naked Girl

There's something wonderfully cinematic about Swim the Fly. I'm seeing teen movie written all over this. Perhaps it's not surprising since Don Calame, new to writing novels, has a previous career as a screenwriter. Like Melvin Burgess's notorious Doing It, this is sort of a romantic comedy. But guy-style. And with some major embarrassment thrown in.

Swim the Fly is the story of three best friends with a long-standing tradition of challenging themselves each summer to reach a group goal. This summer, their goal is "to see a real live naked girl for the first time". Since they are too young to get into a strip club and none of them has ever had a date, it's not immediately obvious just how this is going to happen for them. Let's just say their progressive attempts to succeed get more and more ridiculous, and when they finally reach their goal, it's hilarious. I've never seen reality crash into fantasy quite so hard.

The book's title refers to another challenge the book's narrator, Matt, sets for himself, which is to swim the 100-yard butterfly against the girl of his dream's buff ex-boyfriend. To impress her, natch. Never mind that he's the worst swimmer on his team, the ex-boyfriend is solid muscle, and the butterfly is a killer stroke. Never mind that the girl of his dreams is an airhead who keeps calling him Mark instead of Matt. Never mind that his coach never seems to do any actual coaching...well, you get the picture. Wouldn't be a challenge if it were easy, right?

Along with being so funny, this book is affectionate and warm. The characters are convincing, and we really like them, even when they do dumb things. And they grow, but we don't get hit over the head with their "life lessons". It's all kept light and lively. I think I'd go so far as to say that this is my favourite summer romance of this year. And I'm not even a teen boy.