Quite a Year for Plums by Bailey White

Quite a Year for PlumsThis fascinating character study is called a “novel,” but, speaking as a novelist, I just can’t call it that. There are some characteristics it has in common with novels:  It is fiction, it has characters, some themes are examined, and things happen.  What is missing is structure.  It’s like spending a day fishing and not catching anything.

In a small south Georgia town, a group of strange people live their lives. The major characters are three older women, Eula, Meade, and Hilma.  Eula is the glue that holds them all together.  Her sister, Louise, is suffering Alzheimer’s Disease, and believes that sexually charged space aliens will visit her if she can only put together the correct letters and numbers to attract them.  Louise’s daughter, Ethel, herself sexually charged, was once married to Roger, a plant pathologist, but now goes through men like a knife through cheese.  Roger is a down-to-earth man who has been adopted by all of the women.  When he was married to Ethel, Eula’s husband taught him how to play old time banjo and he has mastered that talent.  Meade and Hilma, retired school teachers, worry about him constantly as they each work on their own obsessions.

An artist, Della, comes to the town to paint birds and becomes obsessed with chicken feet. A fragile, flighty person, she begins to leave her stuff at the dump, with little notes explaining, for example, what is wrong with the fan she’s leaving there.  This fascinates Roger and he begins a relationship with her.

Everyone, except for Roger, seems consumed with their obsessions (and even he does, to a lesser extent). Those obsessions, White seems to indicate, are what makes them unique individuals.  In spite of this, only two characters truly stand out as individuals, Roger and Della.  They are the only ones who are given enough of a physical description to delineate them from the others.  Unfortunately, their relationship never really develops or goes anywhere.  One of the most common complaints about this book is it’s hard to tell the characters apart and that lack of definition is a serious problem.  For example, there really isn’t any way to keep Meade and Hilma separate.  They seem to be the same character.  Honestly, I don’t think White did that to make a point.

Two things seem apparent in the book. First, the world is changing for the worse, and second, we are all ravaged by our own concerns.  Rich old woodland is being subdivided and suburbs are being built.  No one takes the time to learn the names of birds.  Some people are so concentrated on the little things that interest them that they can’t even carry on a normal conversation with others.  Romantic relationships appear to be impossible.

In other words, things have deteriorated and we will not be able to fix them.

If you have heard and like Bailey White’s commentary on NPR, you will probably like this book. It’s very funny in places and it is certainly interesting to lose yourself in this little community.  It feels like a series of her commentaries strung together in an attempt to create a novel, but the lack of any identifiable structure keeps it from being a successful novel.

Stories live in their construction.  Things don’t happen randomly, but are shaped by the author to a purpose.  White does this admirably in her short works, but a novel must have several arcs to it.  The main story arc develops from humble beginnings to reach a denouement and the main character arc does the same thing.  Events in a story shape the development of the character, who grows through their experience.  The events and themes must be shaped so that they work themselves to a fine point and if they don’t, then the reader feels like they’re sitting in a boat, rocking on the water, and not going anywhere.

Bring your bait and tackle.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper LeeHarper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is not a novel about justice.  It is about something much simpler: right and wrong.

Engaging from the first page to the last, it is told in the voice of Jean Louise Finch, a girl from southern Alabama, looking back on the years between 1932 and 1935, when she was six to eight years old and had the nickname Scout. She plays and learns from her brother Jeremy, called Jem, who is four years older, in their hometown of Maycomb, the County seat.  Their father, Atticus, is an attorney and state legislator and they have a black woman, Calpurnia, who cooks, cleans, and acts as surrogate mother when needed.

Although Atticus was not college educated, he is a very thoughtful and well-read man and he ensures that both of his children strive to be as well-educated as possible. Jem claims that Scout has been reading since she was born and she reads to her father every night before she goes to sleep. Something of a tomboy, she has trouble controlling her temper, but she struggles to understand this little world she was born into.

The novel begins in 1932 when a boy comes to spend the summer with his aunt, Miss Stephanie, a neighbor of the Finches. His name is Charles Baker Harris, but he goes by the nickname of Dill and he has many outlandish stories for his new friends, mostly concerning his absent father.  As they play, Jem tells him to stay away from the Radley place because a maniac named Boo Radley lives there and never comes out.  His father keeps him chained to a bed and he only comes out at night to go around to look in people’s windows.  Naturally, Dill wants to see him and hatches various plans to make Boo come out, none of which ever come to anything.

A major portion of the novel deals with their fascination for Boo Radley and their father’s orders not to bother the man, but the most remembered scenes of the book deal with a trial in which Atticus must defend a black field worker, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a poor girl who lives with her redneck father, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell, and seven brothers and sisters behind the town dump.

It is apparent that Tom is innocent, that Mayella was beaten and raped by her own father. Although there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence that points to his innocence, a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion.  The testimony of Bob and Mayella, two white people, is weighed against the testimony of one black man by a male jury of white men.  Even though the result is a foregone conclusion, Atticus puts of the best defense he can.  Jem is perhaps the most crushed by the verdict.  He has a child’s certainty that justice will be done and his disappointment at the result is deep.

As Jem turns away to deal with this on his own, Scout turns to Atticus and to the women in her community and her Aunt Alexandra to find an explanation for the injustice. What she learns is that the important thing is to try to do right, even against overwhelming odds, and to trust that the world will always lean toward what is right.  The evidence is in the judge, who gave every advantage he could to Tom’s defense, the neighbors, who know that justice wasn’t served, and a community that is more aware of the injustice that either Jem or Scout might believe.  In the end, through the character of Boo Radley, justice is finally served, outside the courtroom.

The message is clear. Do right.  Trust in your fellow man.  Everything will equal out in the end.

Comparisons between the novel and the movie are inevitable, but it is difficult to find any great division to say one is better than the other. The movie more or less tells the essentials of the novel by focussing on the action and it is extremely successful.  One might only wish that all adaptations were as successful, but for me the book lives the story more successfully.  The voice of Scout is unique, engrossing, and deeply touching.  In the movie, we also hear Scout’s voice, but I have always thought that the girl playing Scout, Mary Badham, seemed a little too big for six years of age.  She has moments that are deeply touching, but at the same time, there are moments when it is quite obvious that she wasn’t an actress, when her performance doesn’t quite ring true.  In the novel, the reader always has the feeling of the adult woman Jean Louise getting back into that period of time completely, of being so much inside the head of her younger self that there is no mistaking the authenticity at all.

The other thing that really won me to the novel is that it works under no time constraint. You feel the long days of summer, of the children playing, of the frightening mystery of Boo Radley, and the incredible perplexity of life.  The movie seems to be almost entirely about the trial, but the trial is entirely secondary in the novel.  It takes place near the end and requires only a few chapters to reveal the entirety.  The novel is more deeply concerned with the children and what they have to learn from life and the trial is only another part of the great textbook of life.

If I were asked if one should see the movie or read the book first, I would advise most strongly that one read the book. Take the time to get that depth of voice and character that a novelist has the time to create for you.  Lose yourself in this childhood of the deep south between 1932 and 1935 and take Scout’s meditations and lessons deep inside you.  Then, watch the truncated version that consists almost entirely of action.

My review of the movie is at To Kill a M0ckingbird.

You’ll like both!

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Hickock and PerryIn Cold Blood is a fictionalized account of a real mass murder that took place on November 15, 1959 on a family farm near Holcomb, Kansas. Although this account is as factual as it can possibly be, Capote shapes his characters and the action much in the way a fiction writer would approach a novel.  He creates scenes, writes dialogue, and gets into the minds of the principal figures in the killing and that is part of what gives this book such raw power.

The film Capote, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is based on Truman Capote’s journey in the creation of In Cold Blood, from generating the idea to traveling to Kansas with his research associate, young novelist Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) to research it, through meeting the killers to actually writing it.

Herbert Clutter was a successful farmer, a Methodist who lived in a nice farmhouse with his wife, Bonnie, and two teenage children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15. Two older daughters no longer lived there.  A former farmhand, Floyd Wells, while in prison, told two other prisoners, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, that Clutter kept a safe in his house that contained a large sum of money.  Out on the street in Kansas City, Hickock decided that he and Perry should rob the farm and take off to Mexico with the cash, so the two drove across Kansas to Holcomb to commit their robbery.

When they discovered that there is no cash in the farmhouse, they murdered the four family members and fled. The next day, the bodies were discovered.  Mr. Clutter’s throat had been cut and he had been shot in the head and the other three each died from a shotgun blast to the head.  The cold, brutal nature of the killings was part of what attracted Capote’s attention.  Nothing was stolen, there were no signs of struggle and each family member was found in a separate room, all of them but the father in bed.  Alvin Dewey, Jr. of the Kansas State Patrol was the key investigator in the case, but the solution came from Floyd Wells.  The man who had given Hickock the information that initiated the murders was also the man who named the killers.  Hickock and Perry were arrested in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959 and returned to Kansas for trial. Between March 22 and March 29, 1960, they were tried at the County Courthouse in Garden City, Kansas.  Although both men pled temporary insanity, the jury brought in guilty verdicts within 45 minutes of deliberation and were sentenced to death by hanging.

While the killers were in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, Capote visited them many times, especially Perry, who opened up to him. As Perry talked about his family and his past, Capote worked to get the real story of the murders.  Hickock had maintained all along that Perry had done the four killings himself, but Perry only claimed two, saying that Hickock had killed both women.  However, when asked to sign a confession to that statement, Perry refused and took the full blame himself.

The actual reasons for the killing may never be known. There was certainly a degree of panic on Hickock’s side when he discovered there was no money to steal and he may have incited Perry to do the shooting.  Perry was introverted, with a tortured personality.  He chewed aspirin relentlessly.  He remains an enigma, claiming to feel great sympathy for the victims, but absolutely cold about the killings.  Regarding Herbert Clutter, he said, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”  Cold blood.

The title is so apt. Some might call it cliché, but it is simple, to the point, and so utterly descriptive of the act.

Capote’s writing is beautiful to read. He layers everything in perfectly and builds his characters with depth.  The first time I read this book, I felt myself grow from worry to pure terror.  I remember reading it in bed and getting up to walk around the house double checking the locks and the windows.

The structure of the book is part of what makes it so compelling.  Even though you know what happens, you can’t turn your eyes from it.  Like coming upon a spectacular car crash, you just can’t look away.  When the killings occurred, I felt so sick at heart that I didn’t really want to know the details–and Capote withheld them.  After the killing, when you would think the excitement is over, Capote builds his book all over, getting inside Perry and finally revealing the details, but through Perry’s own cold blood.

On April 14, 1965, Hickock was hung by the neck, suspended from a gallows for nearly 20 minutes before being pronounced dead at 12:41 AM. Then Smith’s execution followed and he was pronounced dead at 1:19 AM.  Four deaths, plus two deaths.  More and more death.

Whether you consider it a novel or nonfiction, it is truly great writing.

Demon

Demon2Demon is the final book of The Gaea Trilogy and it brings the story to a very satisfying conclusion.  Author John Varley is easily the most whimsical of all science fiction writers for the past 30 years and even though this series begins with its feet on the ground, it ends up tearing a hole in the sky.

For a synopsis of the previous two novels, Titan and Wizard, please click on the links.

In Demon, the planetary brain, Gaea, has reconstituted herself as a 50 foot tall image of Marilyn Monroe.  She has created new subsets of creatures designed to serve her needs as a movie studio, moving about the countryside, scouting locations, milling timber, building sets and so forth.  There are even small creatures called Bolexes and Panaflexes that can film events as they happen.  So Gaea now has a roving studio moving across the wheel making movies.

Gaea has also started a war among the powers on Earth and as the number of nuclear explosions mount, it becomes apparent that Earth is going to destroy itself. Gaea helpfully begins evacuating humans to her wheel and using them in many insidious ways.  Among the bizarre creatures that Gaea has created, there are religious zombies, which attack anyone at any time.

Rocky has become Gaea’s enemy and lives by hiding, moving from place to place, making allies among the creatures on the planet, such as the Titanides, a centaur like race whose sex is determined by front sexual organs, but who also have both sexes in the rear. The Titanides are the exact opposite of humans and possess all the skills to have a peaceful and loving civilization, but they have become caught up in the struggle against Gaea and are strong allies with Rocky.  Chris, who became romantically involved with a Titanide female in <I>Wizard</I> is now turning into a Titanide himself, gradually.  Robin, who returned to her Coven, returns now with a grown daughter (Chris is the father) and a baby boy.  Through some genetic trick, Gaea has somehow managed to make Chris the father of Robin’s new baby boy, Adam.  They were both immaculate conceptions.

Also, Gaby’s spirit has returned to help Rocky in her war against Gaea, who is now clearly insane. Rocky sets about raising an army from the destitute humans arriving from the ravaged Earth and the battle is pretty well set up.

It should be clear from much of the synopsis above that John Varley writes great, big and vibrant female characters. This is also a feature of his bizarre short stories.

But the most prominent aspect of his writing is the creativity and whimsy that he brings to the art. When he exploded on the SF scene in the late seventies, he was a tremendous breath of fresh air in a field that had become a little stagnated.  More recently, after gaps in writing, he has produced fun SF that hearkens back to the early days of SF, while still keeping it modern and entertaining.

In reading this trilogy, however, it is great to reminded of the vitality, the pure wacky spirit that made his early work so much fun to read.

I highly recommend this novel and the entire trilogy.

Wizard by John Varley

 

WizardThis is the second book of the Gaea Trilogy and this review is intended for readers who have already finished the first novel of the trilogy, Titan.  To read my review of that book, click HERE.

Just as Titan begins in a somewhat normal universe and escalates into an absurd universe, so Wizard picks up at the same gonzo level where the first book ended and escalates into something even more absurd.

This book takes place roughly 75 years after the end of Titan and the two main characters return, Rocky Jones and Gaby Plauget. When Gaea made Rocky the Wizard of Gaea, she also gave her certain powers to go with Rocky’s new station.  Rocky can now talk to all of the creatures that live on the wheel, she has been given eternal youth, and she has been made the sole method of ferterilizing the Titanide’s eggs, making her essentially responsible for the survival of the species.  Gaby, in order to remain on Gaea with Rocky, has had a tougher road.  She works for Gaea on a piecemeal basis, project by project, and her principal reward from Gaea is eternal youth, bit by bit.  She must constantly keep re-earning her prize and is none too happy about it.

Most of the novel, however, deals with two new characters and their exploits on the giant living body of Gaea. Both of them are fairly young and both of them have incurable diseases.  It has been Gaea’s policy for some time now to ask certain humans to come to her (she calls them pilgrims) to be cured.  But Gaea likes her good deeds to be a two-way street – you do something for me first and if I find you worthy, I’ll cure everyone who has your disease.  The something that Gaea always demands is an act of heroism (or death trying).

The young man, Chris, has a disability where he temporarily goes insane and cannot recall his actions while gonzo. When crazy, he can harm innocent people and has a bad problem with rape.  He always feels bad afterward, but what can you do?  He finally screws up his courage and decides to approach Gaea.

The young woman, Robin the Nine-Fingered, comes from a Coven of witches which lives in a habitat at the L2 LaGrange orbit of earth. Long separated from other humans, these women have lived in Lesbian harmony for many years and recreated human culture from their own perspective.  All men are insane rapists running an earth where women are kept as sex slaves.  Human literature, which was all written by women, has been co-opted to seem as if it was mostly written by men.  And so forth.

Robin has a disease in which she periodically has intense siezures where she loses all control. She has become a hateful, violent 19-year-old who hopes eventually to have children, if Gaea can cure her.  She comes before Gaea with a serious attitude problem.

These two unlikely characters are joined together with Rocky and Gaby on a cross-Gaean trip hoping to find situations requiring heroism. Those who have read Titan know that opportunities for heroism exist in abundance on Gaea, but so do the opportunities for death.

And death does play a prominent role in this novel. Varley pulls no punches in his descriptions.

Like Titan, this novel is also largely picaresque as the foursome venture around the rim of Gaea, accompanied by four Titanides, one of which has fallen in love with Chris.  The Titanides are truly amazing creatures, created by Gaea because she wanted Centaurs. All communications between them are sung and they a truly unique sexual perspective (they are composed of one frontal sex and two rear sexes.  This novel is strictly for mature readers.  It contains graphic descriptions of Titanide sex and alien-human sex.

And finally, like Titan, it is a huge, sprawling, comic and yet deadly serious story about survival, godhood, humanity and heroism.  While it is possible to say that it is not quite as good as Titan, it is nonetheless a page-turner and it does amaze and delight.  The scope is huge.  At his finest, John Varley is one of the most challenging, awe-inspiring and shocking science fiction writers of the past thirty years.

This book meets all of those criteria and I highly recommend it–and the Gaea Trilogy–to all mature fantasy/sf readers.

Titan by John Varley

TitanTitan is an amazing science fiction book, the first one in the Gaea Trilogy, and it deserves a place among the 100 best science fiction books of all time.

 John Varley has had my attention ever since I ran into The Persistence of Vision many years ago.  In that collection of short stories I was awestruck with his creativity and unique approach to science fiction.  Each story was challenging with innovation and new ways of thinking about old problems.

Although Titan isn’t so much cutting-edge as some of his more whimsical short stories, it definitely has it’s moments when you have to slam the book closed, stand up, and walk around in a circle laughing.  It is part science fiction, part comedy, part fantasy and part homage to great and not-so-great science fiction of the past.

The book is set in the not-too-distant future of the next 200-300 years.  It tells the story of the Deep Space Vehicle Ringmaster and her crew on a mission to Saturn.

The captain is a woman named Cirocco “Rocky” Jones (an homage to the old serial “Rocky Jones”) who was born in a corporate wandering family that travelled the globe at the beck and call of corporations who actually run Earth.  Brought up by her mother, Jones always wanted to be an adventurer and ended up becoming an astronaut so that she could – hopefully – see things no one had seen before.

Her navigator is Gaby Plauget, a small woman who has been fascinated with space since childhood and really cares for nothing else.  Other crewmembers include a doctor, engineer and pilot (males) and two cloned sisters.  Sex is a rather open prospect on a deep space vessel, both hetero and homo and Rocky has slept with all of the men.

Upon approaching Saturn, they discover a rather large space object that they at first think is a rogue moon, but when they get closer, the object appears to have been built by intelligence.  They scrap their mission to investigate.  In form, the object is like a huge ring with spokes attaching to a hub, but literally hundreds of kilometers in circumference and doing one full rotation per day as it makes its way around Saturn.

Before they can figure out an approach to the object, they are grabbed and the Ringmaster is pulled toward the object, smashing apart in the process.  Rocky then goes through a process where she is aware of sensory deprivation for a very long time before she is finally coughed up from the ground onto the surface of the ring, with the great hub rotating hundred of kilometers above her.  She finds Gaby and eventually the others and meets up with a species called the Titanides, half-human, half-equine.  The crew name objects using Greek mythology, especially derived from the Titan myths and they decide to call the “planet” or “object” Titan.

Titan is full of many wonderful and whimsical creatures, including a kilometer-long blimp-like flying creature that is intelligent, and creatures fashioned to look exactly like angels, flying through the sky.

Rocky decides that she must travel to the hub to discover if there are any builders alive or if there is a radio so she can contact Earth.  Gaby travels with her on a torturous journey up the strands of cable that hold Titan together, discovering along the way that the object is actually a living creature, whom they rename Gaea (mother of the Titans).

 I won’t divulge what happens when they reach the hub – it must be savored by the reader when they actually reach that point and I don’t want to spoil that part.  Let’s just say that it is one of those moments when you must slam the book closed, stand up, and walk around in a circle laughing.

But I will give the warning that the book contains a lot of descriptive sexual relationships, including a detailed description of the Titanides’ sexual construction and the many ways that they may procreate.

 I highly recommend this novel to those with open minds and who appreciate creative and whimsical writing.  If you’ve ever wanted to jump into something that will surprise and amaze you with its creativity, this is a book you will want to look into.  And it’s hard to put down once you get started.

Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey

DragonsingerDragonsinger is the sequel to Dragonsong and the second book of the Harper Hall Trilogy.  In the main Pern timeline, it occurs roughly at the same time as the later sections of Dragonquest (the second novel of the Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy).  It continues Menolly’s story from the ending of Dragonsong as she arrives at the Harper Hall to begin her new life as a musician.  It is highly recommended that one read Dragonsong before reading Dragonsinger.  To understand the development of the story, I recommend reading my review of the first book, which may be found HERE.

The first book apparently resolves the most serious of Menolly’s problems, but one should keep in mind that she is still entering an unknown world – the world of the Harper Hall – and she is not at all prepared for it. Although she has received detailed training in all of the basic skills of being a musician on Pern, she lacks good voice training and tutoring under a master composer.  In addition, she has not been socialized into the culture of musicians and she carries a burden of extremely low self-expectation.  It is not uncommon for the abused to bring low self-esteem into any performance situation and Menolly is just at the beginning of her journey to self-confidence.

Certainly, her entrance on the Harper Hall stage is dramatic. She arrives on dragonback, accompanied by Masterharper Robinton, who immediately declares that she is the missing composer they have been searching for – and that she has provided fire-lizard eggs for himself and his Journeyman Sebell.  The bronze dragonrider, T’Gellen, sensing Menolly’s discomfort, tells her that there is nothing to fear from Harpers and that within a sevenday the Harper Hall will be home.  These are things that she will think about in the days to come.

The novel tells the rather simple story of Menolly’s adjustment to her new life, both the difficulties and the triumphs.

Among the difficulties she must face is the jealousy and disdain of the handful of girls she must live with in the cottage assigned to her. While Menolly is a full Apprentice to the Craft, the girls are strictly amateurs, their tuition paid by their wealthy families as a part of a larger liberal education.  They will never be professionals.  There is only one girl among them, Audiva, who has the temerity to befriend Menolly.

Another difficulty is overcoming the prejudice of the instructors. Master Morshal, the instructor in musical theory, does not like Menolly’s songs and considers it presumptuous for a female to make the attempt at becoming a Harper.  Although equally as skeptical, Master Domick, the Composition instructor, is open-minded concerning her talent.

The headwoman Silvina helps her to settle in and becomes a mother figure for the girl, while one of the youngest apprentices, Piemer, helps her to adjust to the practices of the hall. Her voice instructor, Master Shonager, is a strict disciplinarian, but he cares about the development of her voice and he works hard to make her a great singer.  But her strongest champions are Master Robinton and Journeymen Sebell and Talmor.  The Masterharper supports her through his constant encouragement and sharing his ideals of what the Hall should be and should do on Pern.  Sebell and Talmor provide a mature friendship support that makes her feel at home.

There are several amazing scenes in the novel.

The first two scenes occur one right after, beginning with her first practice with Domick, Sebell, and Talmor of Domick’s new composition. Even though he has played with her once before on a more simple composition, he is amazed by her ability to sight read music.  Even the two journeymen are quite impressed with her musicianship.  What gives the scene real emotional power, however, is that Domick has labored largely unappreciated as a composer and Menolly sees at once how beautiful his composition is and tells him that playing it was like riding on the back of a dragon.  He is so touched that he completely softens toward her.

That scene ends with the blaring of tocsin because Thread is immanent. When the midday meal is served, it rings again because Thread is directly overhead.  Menolly’s fire-lizards become extremely agitated, so in order to calm them the entire dining hall, all of the apprentices and journeymen, are encouraged to sing.  The fire-lizards sing along and when the first song is finished, Journeyman Brudegan encourages Menolly to lead the entire chorus in the singing of “The Ballad of Moreta’s Ride.”  Conducting such accomplished voices becomes almost a mystical experience for Menolly who becomes so lost in the music that it takes a while for her to come back to reality once it is over.

The next great scene is the only one that directly intersects the main story told in Dragonquest, that being the experimental trip that F’nor takes to the Red Star to see if they can go there to destroy Thread at the source.  It is the first instance in any of the Pern novels that the fire-lizards not only possess a kind of joint consciousness, but that they also possess a joint memory (as a species) of events which have transpired in the far-distant past.

Menolly’s fire-lizards become highly agitated as they sense that there is great danger. They are actually reacting to the two fire-lizards on the heights above Fort Weyr–Meron’s fire-lizard is agitated because her master is projecting a vision of the Red Star to her and F’nor’s Grall is simultaneously experiencing that vision.  They are both in a panic.  After Meron leaves, F’nor projects a specific picture to Grall, goes between in utter panic.  At that point, F’nor makes his fateful decision to make the journey on his dragon, Canth to the Red Star.  Before they leave, he has Canth broadcast what they are doing.  Although Menolly cannot communicate with dragons, the intensity of having nine fire-lizards helps her to pick up these signals, then, when Brekke cries out, “Don’t leave me alone!” Menolly herself cries it out and wakes up all of the masters in the Hall.

The last scene that I loved occurs at the end of the novel, so I won’t give it away. All of the great things I said about Dragonsong equally apply to Dragonsinger.  It is written simply and beautifully.  It evokes emotion without beggin it, in fact, without seemingly trying at all.  Menolly and the other characters are all beautifully written.  It is great not only as a Young Adult novel, but also as a novel that anyone can enjoy.  And as far as I know, most readers enjoy it fully!

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

AnimalDreamsVery occasionally I have the good fortune of reading a novel that both touches me deeply and at the same forces me to do some deep thinking, written in a style that is simple and direct, with such good writing that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Animal Dreams (1990) is a very mature work of art that has the knack of seeming youthful and innovative, yet old and wise at the same time.

The novel tells the story of Codi Noline, a thirty-something woman who moves from Tucson to her hometown of Grace, AZ when Carlo, her live-in boyfriend, moves on and her little sister, Hallie, sets off for Nicaragua to help poor farmers try to raise their crops under constant threat from the Contras. The town of Grace was founded by nine beautiful sisters who moved there from Spain, bringing peacocks with them.  Situated in a desert valley, the abundant orchards provide the only real economic basis of survival since the local mine shut down.  Descendants of the original peacocks roam the orchards, as descendants of the original sisters are the primary inhabitants of the valley.  Except for the Nolines.

The girls’ father, Doc Homer, has told the two girls their whole lives that they emigrated from back east. Their mother died shortly after Hallie’s birth.  Doc has always considered himself to be more intelligent than the locals and he brought both girls up to think themselves better, which led to a number of problems in school.  In fact, Codi trained to be a doctor, but dropped out during her residency and has been working at a 7/11 and drifting through her life since.  She might have stayed in Tucson if Carlo and Hallie hadn’t left her and she hadn’t gotten word that Doc Homer was showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Taking a job teaching biology at Grace High, she moves into a spare room at the home of her old friend Emilina Domingo and eventually runs into her high school boyfriend, Loyd Peregrina, a Native American with mixed Pueblo, Apache and Navajo blood. Loyd was the father of a child that Codi miscarried as a teenager, but she still feels very strongly about him and they resume their old relationship.

Through Emilina, she finds herself among the members of local women’s club, the Stitch and Bitch Club, and becomes involved in their fight to save Grace from the pollution caused by the former mine.

Codi’s character is deep and very well nuanced. Although she’s disappointed in herself and has a love/hate relationship with her father, she cares deeply about Hallie.  Through he depression, she is also looking for herself and wondering if there can be a Codi with a positive outlook on life.  Her renewed relationship with Loyd helps provide the spark, along with bonding with the local women and feeling like an important part of the community.  Part of the story is her search for self and it is also part of the resolution.

Animal Dreams is Kingsolver’s second novel. I first found her when I picked up her first book, The Bean Trees, in an airport bookstore.  I fell in love with her writing almost on the first page I read, but where The Bean Trees is a simple book in all respects, Animals Dreams carries a maturity that moves it to an entirely higher level in the realm of modern American literature.  It balances the quest for personal knowledge with the question of how much one individual can affect environmental or political change.

I think it’s one of the best books written in the last fifty years and I strongly recommend it to all readers of modern American literature.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House on the PrairieThis review contains spoilers.

First published in 1935, this is the third in a series of autobiographical novels known as the Little House series. I haven’t read the first two, but since this particular book is the most famous of the whole series, I decided to read it separately, as if it was a standalone novel.

Laura Ingalls was a small child when her parents, Charles and Caroline, left what she calls the Big Woods of Wisconsin in 1868 with herself, her older sister Mary and Baby Carrie. The first part of the novel covers their trek west through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri to Kansas in search of good land to homestead.  Their covered wagon carries a few necessities and they have their faithful bull mastiff, Jack, to help protect them.

After crossing the Verdigris River, they found a site nearby about 40 miles from the town of Independence, Kansas, and made it their home. Charles Ingalls was a man with many talents, not the least of which was woodworking, so he began to fell the trees in the bottomland and built them a log cabin and a stable for their horses.  They made it through the summer with his hunting and making do with the supplies they bought and lived there until 1871.

Even though it is written in third person past voice, Dark-haired Laura is clearly the identity of the story. Her older sister Mary, a blond girl, seems less active and more centered in the home.  When Ma needs to get something done, it is Mary who takes up Baby Carrie and cares for her.  And during long, hot days, when Laura is out exploring, Mary prefers to be out of the sun in the cabin, doing needlework or helping their mother.  Besides all of his skills in woodworking and hunting, Pa also plays the fiddle and both Pa and Ma sing at night. 

This may have been what drew my own sisters so deeply into the book.  Growing up in northwest Missouri, not far from the setting of this book, their home was also near a river bottom, in our case, the Missouri River.  There were four sisters in my family, but like the Ingalls, my father played violin and both of our parents were singers.  Like the Ingalls, they worked a farm for most of their lives.  The Little House series has been a staple in our family, passed down among the generations of girls when they are all young and it means a great deal to the women in my family to be a part of that heritage.  In fact, this book represents the strength and independence of American women and the pioneer spirit that built the west this country over the bones of Native Americans.

Indians play a big role in the book. In the beginning, when the Indians are away for their summer hunting, they represent the bogeyman, the menace that is never seen, but is somehow very close.  Almost from the beginning, Laura wants to see a papoose and she asks about it over and over, but when the Indians return from their hunting and camp below the bluffs near the river, their first Indian visitor, when Pa is away, scares her silly.  Quiet, tall, stately, he imposes himself on the household, eating the food Ma prepares for him and taking Pa’s tobacco.

While Laura is scared of Indians, Pa has a much more balanced view. He understands that this has been their land for generations and knows that he is an interloper.  He tells Laura that the Indian was welcome to his tobacco and that if they should ever come again to let them have something as a way of keeping peace.  Their homesteading neighbors are less sanguine and the phrase, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” appears several times.  If it weren’t for Pa’s more respectful attitude, this book might find itself banned from libraries instead of being included in the Top 100 Children’s Books.  However, even Pa with his liberal attitude believes that the land should belong to “those who will use it,” in other words, the white settlers.  Throughout the book, there are rumors that Washington will make a treaty that will result in the homesteaders being ejected from their land, but Pa doesn’t believe it.  He thinks that the federal government will keep pushing Indians west.

The Ingalls family faces a myriad of problems during the book, including a prairie fire, a prowling panther, the ever-present fear of Indians, the prospect of a Christmas with no gifts, and a cattle drive. It doesn’t ever feel like it’s building toward something, but it is and that building is so subtle that Laura isn’t even aware of it until near the end.  The outward appearance of building–making the log cabin, obtaining a cow, building a stable, digging a well, plowing the ground–all show a growth in the Ingalls control over their land, but the real building occurs in the concern of the Indians over the control of that land.  That is what brings things to a head and creates the conclusion of the book.

Wilder has written Little House on the Prairie in a very simple style and that is part of its great charm and why you will find it in the Children’s section of the library, rather than the adult, but make no mistake, it is very well written and equally serves adult readers as well.  She has captured her memories of the prairie through nature.  Meadowlarks and dickie birds are always singing as the high prairie grass waves in the wind.  Deer run free and relax placidly in the river bottom, geese and ducks fly back and forth, north and south, as the seasons pass.  Rabbits are everywhere and even snakes make their appearance from time to time.  The meat that they eat comes from the world around them and the only work that is necessary is the work that concerns their own day to day lives.  Unlike today’s workers, the Ingalls’ labor provided directly for their own survival, not for the benefit of others.

Her genius is surely evident in spare construction of the book, moving swiftly from one thing to another until suddenly the book is over and you wonder, how did that go so fast? It went so fast because it is spare, nearly perfect writing throughout, with engaging characters, a compelling drama, and a fascinating story.

Little House on the Prairie will always have a meaningful place in American literature and rightly so! Recommended for all ages.