Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Variety of Quick Reads

 I've been going slowly through a few grown-up-style non-fiction books lately, so my book reading completion rate has slowed down drastically. However, in this time of long, jaunty books, I have also managed to whip through one novel, one memoir and three audiobooks:

Let me first encourage you to have your socks knocked off by Janice Earlbaum's Girlbomb. I can't believe I'd never heard of it before. It's unputdownable and brilliant in that slightly-voyeuristic-account-of-a-fucked-up-but-really-cool-scenester adolescence way; it's basically Basketball Diaries for women, although Janice keeps far enough above water that her teenage depravity is not awkwardly unbearable, unlike in the Jim Caroll. Janice is a teenager in New York in the eighties and she has all the drugs (except heroin, meaning that the book ends on a hopeful tone and not, as in the Jim Caroll, with the autobiographist shivering in an alley). Janice also has all the freedom, after she runs away from home. Her mom's series of bad boyfriends culminates in a creeper named Dave, and Janice gets out before anything horrible happens and goes straight to a crazy shelter, from where she's transferred to a middle-class group home. All the money she can steal from her snack bar job goes to drugs that she can share with her girly best friends, who aren't that great. There's one passage where her two best friends are sobbing and telling her about the subway ride back from Coney Island with their guy friends and one of them stuck his head out the train window and hit a pole and he fell back into the train, bleeding, with his fractured skull mashed in, and he's in a coma and Janice is thinking, "What the hell? They went to Coney Island without me?" When cocaine comes to New York, Janice is living with a bartender who can get it easy and she rockets up the popularity ladder because she's the high school girl with the coke, and then plummets because her friends are sick of her high all the time and cutting their coke with talcum powder. She nearly dies, cheats on the bartender with the guy she had a crush on last year, moves back in with her mom, and goes off to college.

The second Tiffany Aching novel, Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, is just as good as the first. Tiffany goes away to learn witching from Miss Level in the mountains, being followed by a hiver, a pre-temporal blob of energy set to suck the meaning out of the most powerful person it can get into, and it's on Tiffany's trail. Witching turns out to be mostly looking after not-that-grateful townsfolk, but there's big magic, and power, as well as the flashy kind of witchcraft that wears a billowing cape and a bunch of dangly, silver jewelry, as in the neighborhood teen girl coven. The main thing is that Hat Full of Sky is pure genius and I have two more Tiffany Aching books and thirty more Discworlds to read, so hurray.

But back in the unhappy: Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King who wrote Ask the Passengers is so much more than a book on the Issue of Bullying. It's funny, painful, sweet and raw. It hurts a lot to read this book, but not unrewardingly. Every line is good, and the audiobook reader has a great voice. Lucky Linderman is not okay to begin with, but he gets sorted mostly, with a good ending leaning towards a future where he doesn't have to deal with Nader McMillan, who's been harassing him since he was seven. Lucky is a likeable kid himself, but he hasn't been able to grow much without being knocked down by Nader and the fear of Nader; he was palling around with him a bit in ninth grade but some stuff happened that brought them both to the attention of the school authorities and Lucky is on Nader's shit list again: Nader holds Lucky down and rubs his face on a cement sidewalk to a wound the shape of Ohio and Lucky's mom finally takes him out of the situation and flies him to Arizona to visit his aunt and uncle, who are both a bit off in their 'specially American ways, Jody being a Dr. Phil-loving pill addict and chubby person and Uncle Dave a cool guy who turns out to have his own dark side, although nothing terribly untoward, just things are revealed that make Lucky think less of him. Between the trip to Arizona, a series of flashbacks to the just-completed ninth grade, and dream rescues of his MIA in Vietnam grandfather, Lucky becomes more better than he was, although in life there are no easy resolutions. I mean, imagine if he'd gotten pregnant by some rakish scoundrel. How would that resolve itself? He would have to find redemption in his own death. Charlotte Temple (formerly subtitled A Tale of Truth) is the Go Ask Alice of the early nineteenth century, being a "true" story of a "real" person who, despite her good bearing was reduced to infamy, and then, of course, died. Like you do, if you listen to the silver-tongued badgerings of a man who's walking the tightrope of ill repute. Charlotte Temple herself is a naive schoolgirl with a good family and not a blemish on her except her blinding stupidity. Her school's French teacher, a lady of bad character, sneaks Charlotte out with her to meet some soldiers who are stationed nearby. Charlotte is overwhelmed by the lovemaking (old meaning) of the man whose father warned him that he must marry a girl with a good inheritance. He is confused, because he likes Charlotte, who has little inheritance, but she assumes he will marry her, so he acts as if he has good intentions, and Charlotte never presses the issue. The cunning French teacher, tired of teaching French, plans to travel with the soldiers to America, where they are soon embarking to... fight us. (Charlotte Temple is set in the 1770s and was published in 1794. It's a linguistic archeopteryx, as the book is perfectly readable but everyone says "prithee" often and without irony.) Charlotte prepares to meet the French teacher and the soldier boys as they are embarking and tell them a meek and comely "no," but she faints and is bundled into a carriage. At this point her honor is irreparably lost, and her pregnancy and death will come as no surprise. (Her parents raise the baby.) Despite being a meh book, Charlotte Temple was the bestsellingest novel in America until Harriet Beecher Stowe blew it out of the water with Uncle Tom's Cabin, which sold like firecrackers, unlike Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, languishing on the shelf at the bookshop and not on the abolitionist's bedside table, until it was rediscovered in the 1980s. Our Nig is the first novel written by an African-American woman, Harriet Wilson, whose harrowing early life provides the backbone for the story of a little girl called Frado who is abandoned by her desperately poor mother and stepfather. They conspire to leave her with a family in the neighborhood too crazy to keep a servant, who therefore could use an unofficially indentured six-year-old to function as housemaid. And so Frado spends her childhood working her fingers to the bone and sleeping is a drafty attic. Frado prays for a summons to live with the family's oldest son and his wife in a different town, but he falls ill and dies, and she is comforted by her Christian faith, which her mistress tries to prevent her from partaking in, because the woman, while on the fence about the souls of black folks, doesn't believe attending meetings one evening a week can be more edifying than washing the dishes and tending cows. Beatings, hardship, Christianity, a pet dog, and wishing she could run away fill the years until Frado turns eighteen and can take a job as a domestic for saner people. Her health ruined from the years of hard labor, she cannot work regularly and moves about, lives on charity, takes in sewing, marries, and is abandoned. One reviewer made the point that, although Our Nig is written to the conventions of the sentimental novel of the day, marriage does not resolve Frado's situation, instead the control of her own labor is Frado's goal and redemption, and the real life Ms. Wilson's novel based on her life story is another attempt to her make her own way financially in the world where most Black Americans were still enslaved, which is, it's argued, why Our Nig did not receive the attention of, say, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is easier for the abolitionist to stomach than a narrative of oppression in the free North. Our Nig is an excellent historical document, although its merits as a novel are not of particular note. On the other hand, it's quite short.

Next time: A very special blog about my five days alone in the Canadian outback.

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