Wednesday, April 1, 2015

One Out of Three

 Three books, three worlds. One was everything, two could have been so much more. One for children, two about children. One wild, two domestic. One stunning, two lame. Two old, one new: 2015 new. I had an ARC of The Honest Truth by Dan Geimenhart and it isn't good. I was excited because The Honest Truth is an outdoorsy novel; but the trouble with a kid alone in the wilderness is that things rarely happen when one is alone in the wilderness. Dan Gemeinhart circumvents this problem by spending 175 pages of the 229-page book getting Mark onto Mount Rainier, and only a few pages on mountaineering fail before Mark succumbs to exhaustion and hypothermia and nearly dies, which is what he came to Rainier to do (spoiler: he's rescued). Mark has cancer, and Mr. Geimenhart tries to build suspense... with cancer. Teasing your audience with glimpses of hospital rooms and bald children is creepy. It's also easy to quickly figure out that the author is hinting at cancer, so by the time the big reveal happens, everyone has understood for a while and they're really uncomfortable about it. But fortunately for Mark, he has a best friend called Jessica, who turns up in flashbacks and half-chapters of third-person inner-turmoil because she knows Mark probably ran away to die on Mount Rainier and she can't decide whether to let Mark die peacefully in a snowstorm or abet the kidhunt that started several hours after he bolted. The trouble with Jessica is that their relationship is too didactic, too forced. She's a girl!, she's brown!, they're best friends!; Gemeinhart can't show, he needs to tell you! that white boys and brown girls can be best friends. (The white boy is the main character.) Every encounter Mark has: the waitress, the thugs, the tortilla makers, the bus driver, and especially the Forest Service biologist who gives Mark a ride up the mountain, is suffused with overbearing life lessons. And Mark brings his dog along: he plans for Beau to find his way down the mountain with a goodbye note clipped to his collar. But Mark doesn't bring any dog food! You'd think that in the weeks he's been planning his escape, and the day of, when he throws some granola bars and and dog treats in his backpack, that he might have thrown some dog food in a baggie; that his dog might want to eat while they're climbing a mountain, but no. There are so many little things in this book that strain credibility. So many bizarre actions and big, throbbing omissions, along with the stilted dialogue and sloppy plot. I'm sorry.

Further along in disappointing books that sucked was The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard. If you ever need rigid Protestants, humorless New Englanders, Puritans, dreary, stone-faced people who trudge through a grim half-life before taking up another space in the family plot where the past generations of people who bear their names rest at the mercy of an implacable God. Cassandra and her emo sister Veronica, she of the unlikely dialogue, were intentionally spared the fate of bearing names already carved on tombstones, but beyond that their lives are set to resemble every joyless moment of their forebearers.' The Morgesons' reviewers emphasize that women of the 1860s were groomed to be married off as soon as possible and that is why this book is revolutionary, but I didn't see it in the Morgeson household: Cassandra and Veronica are beyond their father's control, expected to do nothing but live as monotonously as possible in the unbearable silence of their parents' home. Veronica stays indoors and says things like, "Why, morning and night are wonderful from these windows. But I must say the charm vanishes if I go from them. Surrey is not lovely." but Cassandra's willingness to leave her parents' house for moderate periods of time results in three long visits to friends and relatives that punctuate The Morgesons' long, domestic non-drama. When Cassandra is thirteen, she is sent to live with her grandfather for a year. He is a dour man who doesn't believe in things like novels and walking, and Cassandra spends her year entombed, except when she attends school where all the girls hate her. Cassandra returns home, uneducated, until, at seventeen, she is invited to visit the family's cousin, so distant that they have been unacquainted with him up to this point, Charles Morgeson. Cassandra is now, somehow, an unremarkably ravishing beauty and she is popular in Charles' village and makes friends for once, becoming particularly intimate with Charles' damp sponge of a wife Alice. Charles goes all Edward Cullen, and Cassandra guesses Charles is watching her sleep when she finds cigarette butts on the floor of her chamber and is somehow okay with this. Charles has a penchant for breaking unbreakable horses and, at the apogee of their unrequited, adulterous love, he invites Cassandra for a ride on the fiercest horse in his stable, who has a thing about carriage covers. It begins to rain. Naturally, Charles assures Cassandra that his horse is broken and no longer afeared of carriage covers; Cassandra must be protected from the rain!, he puts the cover up, the horse spooks, runs into a wall, and Charles dies. Cassandra awkwardly leaves her grieving widow friend Alice, who looks to be on the verge of growing a pair, and returns to the silent torpor of her family's home. Eventually, she goes to visit her school friend Ben, who is inexplicably in love with Veronica, and she meets some cool women but nothing happens and Ben's mother hates her, so she returns home to find her own mother dead in her rocking chair and then everyone grows up and becomes slightly more self-sufficient but still ignorant and languid. I kept waiting for this book to get better and it didn't. So many morally bankrupt people I felt a little dirty at the end of it for reading all this terrible, unctuous dialogue and non-sequiturs. ("I look for a reason in every action. Tell me fairly, have you had a contempt for me—for my want of perception? I understand you now, to the bone and marrow, I assure you.") The Morgesons is a bit of a feminist tale for it's time specifically because it stars a young woman who takes a damn long time to get married, but that's no reason anyone should read it.

Which brings us to Thursday's Children which should be read as part of our greater Rumer Godden revival. I dug it out of the misc. female authors pile by the desk when I was looking for something exquisitely beautiful to read a few weeks ago. The only other adult book I've read of Ms. Godden's was The Lady and the Unicorn, which turns out to be her first and worst book, but Holly and Ivy is one of the best Christmas orphan stories of all time (Christmas orphans!) and the Japanese doll books are incredible. Thursday's Children is certainly a book for grown-ups with grown-up comments and asides, but it is about children, which makes me wonder why anyone bothers with adult fiction when it's about children half the time anyway. It's structured in an interesting way: the only other place I've seen this is The Secret Garden, where one character arc spans half the book until its resolution when another character picks up the plot torch and runs another hundred pages to the end. (Thursday's Children is without the last Hail-Mary-redemption-of-the-hunchback-father-pass that rounds out Secret Garden). Concerning the Penny family, they're a greengrocer and wife in North London sometime back when the people were simple but middle class affluence was creeping in. Mrs. Penny desperately wants a daughter whom she can groom to be a famous dancer. Four sons later, she finally gets her, Crystal, who is absolutely beautiful and everything her mother ever wanted and, while she's busy turning Crystal into Honey Boo Boo, she becomes accidentally pregnant with something she has no interest at all in and he ends up named Doone, as the parents were going to call him Lorna had he been a girl. Nobody wants Doone or bothers about him much except Beppo, the Italian tumbler who lives in the shed. Besides Beppo, with his early admonitions to keep limber and practice every day, Doone is a parasite on the side of whoever's stuck minding him, like Crystal who makes him carry her shoes when she goes to dance lessons at Madame Tamara's, where Doone is first enchanted by the ballet. Mrs. Penny is aggressive about Crystal's supposed prodigy and Doone tags along until he's accidentally noticed, and from then on Mrs. Penny makes them a package deal. Everyone hides this from Mr. Penny, who, when he does find out, can say that ballerinos are queers and he'll have none of it because this is a book for grown-ups. Doone is bereft, but his life is one of exclusion and hard knocks so any one setback isn't as shattering as a combination of all the other setbacks together. His arc continues back to ballet class and up to the school of the Royal Ballet where he's finally found his place, and Crystal's story takes over. She's bound and determined to do something but she's also a moody adolescent whose passion isn't really ballet even though she's almost as talented as Doone and she's been raised to think she's the best. She's a bit spoiled and she's also in love with Yuri the special guest teacher at the Royal Ballet. And Crystal is great. Doone remains a child to the end of the book, (he's still eleven or so) but Crystal manages to turn Thursday's Children into an awkward, early adolescent bildungsroman and it's perfect.

Next up: Sequels!

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