The Freedom Maze

The Freedom Maze is a book that can be re-read. I’d first read this book in 2012 and may have read it since, but on pulling it off my shelves again, it still reads beautifully.Mind you, this is a book that will make you uncomfortable. It talks about race-relations, but you will find that it can be used to talk about any kind of servitude- any form of bullying and harassment that masks itself as justice and the maintenance of an orderly society.

It made me think about the bullying that some kinds of people exercise their authority to practice with impunity, but it also made me think about class-gaps and the treatment of the informal labour industry (in countries everywhere e.g. US, Philippines, Thailand) specifically, house help in India.

The book’s protagonist is 13 year Sophie Martineau a passive, bookish, unhappy teen who leads an unchallenged and uninteresting life with her controlling, unsympathetic mother. It is set in 1960s Louisiana just after desegregation. Sophie is sent back to the decaying family home to live with her aunt for the summer.

Unhappy about her life and anxious about the future, she makes a wish for a different life, and is promptly sent back in time to her family home as it was in the year 1860 before the Civil War led to making slavery illegal.

Sophie’s adventures are not at all like the blithe, contextless brand of fantasy that children’s novels like E.Nesbit’s Five Children And It or Chronicles of Narnia narrate. In their review of the book, Kirkus Reviews also mentions Time Garden as a literary referent- a novel where a group of white children go back in time and free slaves. Instead, Sophie herself is taken to be a slave (because she has a tan from being outdoors) and is put to work on her family plantation.

She experiences the complete physical vulnerability of the slaves quite practically when she gets whipped for reading a book or has a pair of shears flung at her. These experiences wring a new moral independence out of Sophie’s nature, she starts seeing herself as one of the slaves and forgets her origins in the 20th century.

Sophie’s developing moral judgement evolves from her own existence as a slave. As such she is not merely a sympathetic, invulnerable outsider developed out of a patronising and blind world-view, but a concrete imagining of what slavery is.

The book is detailed, sensitive, and gripping. Delia Sherman makes use of African- Caribbean myth to underpin the fantasy element of the plot, and the voices of the characters are poignant and unforgettable. When Sophie is pulled back out of the past we are with her in that moment, still wondering about the fate of the characters who have been left behind. She returns to the present with a better understanding of her ancestors and the world she is living in.

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Eleanor & Park

Eleanor and Park was harder to read than I thought it would be. I picked it up blithely thinking it was another YA romance :young love! misfits!TEEN LIFE. But it wasn’t as easy on the emotions as that. I thought that one of them would feel self conscious a la Bella of something bland and forgettable and perhaps they would both maybe make statements about the painful awkwardness of adolescence and the perils of not fitting in with the better looking, well off crowd. But. Eleanor is living with her mum, a house full of siblings, and her mother’s new husband, who is a drunken creep. The whole book I was sitting at the edge   waiting for Richie to abuse Eleanor. I had to keep skipping ahead to reassure myself that it wasn’t going to happen. Girl does meet boy when Eleanor meets Park who in her words is a “stupid, perfect Asian boy”. He has a secure, breathtakingly normal life. Happy mom, happy dad, annoying younger sibling. Rowell reveals how the things such a life takes for granted or can be nonchalant about can be the stuff of paradise in the same neighborhood. Eleanor doesn’t tell Park stuff like she doesn’t have shampoo and just uses what she can get, like dishwashing liquid, or has no clothes of her own.Which is why she wears cast off men’s clothing. With astonishing clarity Rowell articulates Eleanor’s fear that when Park knows the factual details of Eleanor’s life he won’t see her as an enigmatic, self appointed individualist- he would see her life to be as bleak as it is. Eleanor slowly trusts Park with the details of her life , and Park finds out for himself his capacity to love another person through the bleakest events of her existance, and to look past mundane concerns like weight. Eleanor, in her turn, discovers how love confers a sense of intact, inviolable  identity and personhood on both people in the relationship, and slowly finds it impossible to feel self conscious about her body around Park. 

It’s a pretty great love story, Eleanor’s vulnerability, the vulnerability of children and teens in the hands of adults isn’t something you can forget easily. I’m sounding sentimental I guess, but the book leaves you kind of thankful for all the things that go right for yourself, and the things you take for granted.

Fangirl and Carry On 

Fangirl is a pretty good book by itself, I started reading it for the references to Baz and Simon though. This book is the genesis of Carry On  because Simon , Baz , Penelope were drawn here as characters in the imaginary “Simon Snow series”.Because Carry On has such a fixed place in my mind now  I think of Fangirl as two books, one where Cath Avery and Levi what’s his name are realistic characters leading realistic lives and another book of disconnected paragraphs about Baz/Simon. 

 Okay , so Cath is starting college and everything is changing. For Cath this means everything sucks. Her twin wants more space, her long time, though boring, boyfriend breaks up with her and she has to cope with living in a new place. She deals by continuing to immerse herself in her fan fic universe. She’s the most popular Simon Snow fan fic writer. In the middle of all this is a confusing situation with her roommate, her roommate’s possible boyfriend Levi, and Cath.

Obviously I LOVE all the Simon/Baz insertions. Cath thinks these characters are actually in love and writes about them like that. Cath’s own story is really nice. 

But Fangirl and Carry On  made me think about love stories. Compelling love stories need a really good obstacle. Something which makes you despair alongside of the characters, and which has enough gravity to explain everyone’s wrought up feelings. In fictional heterosexual relationships we usually depend on class or power battles. And that may make you weep especially in Romeo & Juliet  but no longer today for I suppose at least some parts of the world. People can escape quite easily. 😀 They “move on” (classic phrase!), start a …start up or something , and find someone who doesn’t judge their lack of inherited wealth 😄. I think epic love stories kind of belong to works of fantasy. TFIOS was amazing but then the kid had to die , they were both  fatally ill. Possibly because painfully true love can’t exist in realistic fiction(ha, ha notice I didn’t say in real life :D) .

In Carry On  Baz has to be the perfect heir, which means hiding his  vampirism and his feelings for Simon, while Simon dates the most perfect blond girl who would make a wonderful heterosexual companion for the chosen one. So it’s moments where Baz is hopelessly outside looking in, where the love story just becomes most potent.Rowell is also brilliant with economic, on target well placed dialogue and phrases (“All I do is lose.”) which just highlights an overwhelming intensity that you feel respectful of, and makes you weep buckets over the character. I’m re-writing my review of Carry On  here seemingly. 😀 .  But mostly I just wanted to compare realistic & fantasy romances. 

Favourite lines:

Simon: “And I know you think we’re completely doomed Romeo and Juliet style.”

“Completely.”, I say to my knees.

Doesn’t that slight description of posture, immediately make you imagine the sense of despair and of being trapped implicit in that line?

If Baz was on a t-shirt I would totally wear him, I need Simon/Baz keychains or something.No, a pillow !!He needs a hug 😄. 

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Excellent fantasy romance read. I picked up the book because of its straight up, easy going well defined voice- this was a writer who had struck gold- and because the blurb promised a vampire. As I read it I realised this was a vampire human romance between two school age wizards. 🙂 It’s amusing just writing that sentence. And yeah, it made my eyes cross too.

Anyhow, it’s super fun to read. The author says it’s a take on Harry Potter (and a Harry/ Draco romance just makes me chortle, I wish it was possible to make those characters read this take on their relationship). The story is set in  a magic school in Britain and the world of the mages is in trouble. Simon Snow the protagonist is the Chosen One (the book actually uses the phrase) who is supposed to save the magical community. His nemesis is his roommate-  Baz Pitch a vampire who comes from old money (all vampires do, classist bastards.). Anyway, only Simon believes Baz is a vampire, and in the war that’s building up in the magical community everyone knows that Baz and Simon will eventually have to fight each other to death.

I like the multiple POVs used in the book, and the way it helped hold back information and increase suspense or the way it just helps you get inside a character’s skin. Particularly when it comes to Baz Pitch, because he’s so easy for a fangirl/boy to fall permanently in love with. Did you know that many people found Draco Malfoy’s character attractive?? I don’t know how, Draco is just a bad guy, and a narcissist. Baz Pitch (or rather, Rainbow Rowell) takes that type of character- the glamorous, dark figure- and humanizes him, makes him vulnerable, through his strong feelings for Simon Snow. Also, his vampirism is another secret he has to carry around because if anyone other than his family knows, he will be cast out. Also, his mother died in battle trying to protect him from vampires when he was a toddler. Also, a la Edward Cullen, he doesn’t eat people. Even the ones he really wants to eat, like Simon.  Sniff. Don’t ya’ll just love him now too?? We love vampires who adore the protagonist and never eat the protagonist, for some reason. Anyhow, Baz Pitch is as perfect as a character can get, and the Simon/Baz relationship totally makes the book for me. It was fun reading a gay vampire/human love story because you don’t have to judge the characters over a lack of gender equity in their relationship. You can just go like *sigh*, the romance, *swoon*. :). Obviously I don’t read books with very high aims in mind.

This is How You Lose Her

Language swings and dances in this short story collection by Junot Diaz. He’s probably been popular at least since 2007 but I never wanted to buy him. Day before I finally did and today I polished off the last couple of chapters, licked my lips and am now greedily considering buying another of his books.

What do you think?

Haha, no but seriously what if I don’t like the next one? The thought just gives me the heebee geebees. The collywobbles. Umm, ok sorry, it just makes me anxious. So I think I won’t, at least for a while.

The book mostly etches episodes in the life of  the fictional character Yunior  (I am dying to know how much of Yunior was based on Junot!) . It catches the character at deeply unflattering moments as each story seems to describe how he cheated on some one or displayed poor judgment and consequently seemed to lose out on life experience. Now and then he seems to do a good thing. But mostly he just sabotages his own happiness and also treats people he loves or likes not well at all as he cheats on them to gloriously staggering proportions. The last chapter ties together most of the stories which I was beginning to think were unrelated, becos the fiance (similar to the fiance character from the first chapter) discovers his cheating ways albeit through different means and then after he loses her, he basically tries to work himself back into a state of grace through writing a book based on the premise of creating the cheater’s guide to love. Idiota. But so, so good and readable, and fun. When was the last time writing was fun and good? Good yes, great yes, and every one says it’s really smart, but also so, so fun? NEVER. So this is the one for me. I think you get literary guys usually, but it’s rare to get a naturally colloquial writer who can turn from richly slangy to concise formality all so easily you never notice what is happening.

To Kill a Mockingbird

While reading To Kill a Mockingbird  I can always hear Mary Badham’s sweet, singsong “Atti-cus!” running through every line-   Gregory Peck shows up in character on every page. I came to the book from watching the odd scene or two from the movie and the gulping, hydrophobic dog scene or the last scenes with Boo Radley, Scout uncomfortably attired as a ham- were as familiar to me as if I’d read those pages already.

What was a revelation to me was Harper Lee’s writing. A movie can’t quote pages from a book which is a pity but the actors made up for any sense of a lack and pre-empted those of us with a desire to gripe. Lee’s observations and pronouncements,  stated in weighty vocabulary and in a charmingly deliberate rhythm – sitting in the mouth of a seven year old – become wildly hilarious and come extremely alive when wrapped around play yard and school yard incidents. Blissfully unhampered by a need to maintain a social equilibrium, Scout pieces together an unsentimental jig saw of her world, organising it along a personal axis of fair and unfair. You notice that she jealously maintains her right to do so. One more way that Atticus becomes a hero is because he helps her maintain her right.

The Islands of Chaldea

I think this is a great book for fans of Diana Wynne Jones. New comers should start off with The Chrestomanci series, the always beloved Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, Dogsbody,The Merlin Conspiracy,The Homeward Bounders or Archer’s Goon.

The marvel of this book is that you never notice two people writing it, because it’s so beautifully well written. The protagonist’s downright voice and nuanced, spunky character is what I have to come to expect as Diana’s own special strength in characterization.

But the story has too much resemblance to the funny, hitching along journey the characters undertake. They visit three islands because apparently that was the only way the author could collect a representative from each island to complete the Quest, but this is done really in order to necessitate a few pages of description and occasion some minor events, lacking in real consequences, none of which build up to the denouement of the book. There doesn’t seem to be much point to their travel, which is what bugs me.

The story is not very cohesive but other elements like the writing, atmosphere, characterization, psychological truths, and the blend of fantasy and ordinary life (no one is a larger than life hero here)- all markers of DWJ’s writing – exist rock steady and give you a reason to read.

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle

Is a title that keeps up the spirit of its subject’s era but the book is not really scandalous and the tragedy seems to exist in the bare facts of her life (although Constance had plenty of reasons to be sad she tended to be rather a cheerful person) rather than coming through in personal detail because the Wildes’ letters to each other were all (except 3, 3 lousy letters) either torn up or stolen,  People please stop doing  this. If you have an inkling that you are going to be famous preserve everything down to your baby teeth, please. Think of us. Think of Me. Having to go through life Not Knowing.

However that’s not to say that personal detail does not exist in this book. It sure does, since Constance’s 300 or so other letters all  apparently still exist, nicely preserved (because the Universe is kind).

Many people blame Oscar for writing to people for money at the end but I don’t see what else he could do. One poignant statement does exist in one of the last two letters quoted in the book, when Constance says regarding Oscar -she could never lose her concern for him and when she tried contacting him through mutual friends he wrote demanding money outright  (although he had a regular allowance from Robbie Ross, but Oscar must have been crazy unhappy after the hideous Douglas, his love, emotionally kicked him in the guts, not that Constance knew) –  that she “[is] rather afraid of him”, which is indeed quite sad. It seems to me that what Wilde wrote about Douglas – “He understands me and my art and loves both.” would much more appropriately describe Robbie Ross who did both these things. Constance loved Oscar but lacked the tools to understand homosexuality. Indeed, unless you were gay yourself especially in the information dead end that was the19th century, I’m thinking that lacking experience and information it would have been difficult to be accepting of it.

It strikes me that Oscar’s life was the craziest drama with plots and sub plots and who did what to whom-who was doing whom-when, where and why, you have to try to keep ’em all straight in your head. Still, no doubt Oscar enjoyed it.

I think the book is interesting as it gives you a picture of Constance’s interests and the avenues open to young purposeful women in the 19th century (hardly anything). Constance fled from one interest to another and was always looking for something that, in her short life, she eventually did not find. She wasn’t good at being an actress or a writer. She was good at political mobilisation but the candidate she supported wasn’t allowed to take on her democratically elected position because her opponent was a sore loser the Constitution did not specifically say “women”. She was businesslike, good with sorting through legal details, interested in art,photography,travel, socialising,the supernatural (apparently like many Victorians), literature,politics,fashion, interior design,religion, her children, Oscar (all her life, after she fell for him) and social issues. I can very easily see her today, doing an undergrad program in literature maybe and probably going on to a career in social work,journalism or politics. But instead we have this statement, “I can quite easily see that I’m leading the most useless life ever but I cannot see what I can do about it.” becoming one of the many indictments of a complacent,insular,judgmental, insensitive, selfish,greedy and patriarchal time.

I wish the book had followed a more chronological format within the chapters, because to appreciate each story I have to keep the time table straight in my own head. But still, it gives me peeps at Oscar, and his wife’s perspective, which is what I wanted, so it’s all excellent.

Collected Ghost Stories-M.R. James & Turn of the Screw-Henry James

I have been reading and re-reading victorian ghost stories. Circa a hundred years ago, at Christmas, you were always supposed to tell ghost stories and I believe in dusting off traditions. M.R. James is great for this, you can find him on Project Gutenberg if you want to experience some fin de siecle chills. Also that creepy little novella The Turn of the Screw *scream*. That book leaves me a gibbering, nerve-racked, suspenseful mess every time I read it! Did the governess do it? The first one? Yes! She did the master’s valet *more victorian screams*. For their sins she and the valet (creepy Peter Quint [drunk late one icy night, *slip* *thud* *dead*]) die and then haunt the little children- wards of their always absent uncle.Only the new governess can save the little mites … but do they want to be saved? da da dum! the evil ones are actually much appreciated by the little babies which is kind of spectacularly creepy, no?

October isn’t too early for friendly and unfriendly christmas ghosts, is it? Most assuredly not, I think. After all Ellen is already prepping audiences for her twelve days special.When they do that you know it’s December.

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