Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Once-Wild, Unblemished Place

Eilis Dillion's The Island of Horses is an enchanting tale set on Ireland's coast. Two village boys, Danny and Pat, decide one day to visit the titular island, about which they've heard tales of curses, ghosts, and abandoned villages. They're most curious about the legendary wild Spanish ponies (decendents of survivors of the defeat of the Spanish Armada). Danny's account of their first visit to the island imparts a lovely sense of wonder and adventure: two boys, without their parents' permission, fishing for eels, camping out in a ruined cottage, and discovering the hidden valley of the horses. When Pat brings back a black colt, the plot becomes more complex and exciting. I loved Dillion's portrait of rural society (with island-to-town rivalries) and sparse descriptions of land and sea.

"The sea was like pale, gray-blue satin, with a long, smoother line far out where the current was. There was one boat out there. It looked like a bird, because we could not see where the sea joined the sky."

Isn't that the most vivid and hauntingly melancholic picture of the sea? I'm positively drunk on her simple prose.

The moral virtue of the boys and their friend Luke is noteworthy, as they take the chance to help their enemy. Throughout the story there is a wistful sense of loss: even as the boys explore the island, they are stealing away the magical seclusion of this mysterious place, and after they take the colt home with them, they worry about others invading the island and kidnapping the remaining horses.

I'm deeply sympathetic to the allure of a remote place; there's nothing quite like finding a little pocket of life on the edge of nowhere, which I've had a few opportunities to do in my travels. Even though I'm sure thousands of readers have shared Dillon's story, my reading of it makes me feel alone and contemplative--in a very, very good way. I highly recommend it if you're in that kind of mood, which makes it all the more appropriate for winter reading.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sometimes It's Nice to Have Parents Around

Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, the follow-up to The Penderwicks, is just as good as the original. There's not an ounce of cynicism in this story, nor is it saccarine. Continuing about a month after the four Penderwick girls and their father return from their summer vacation, this story chronicles the widowed Mr. Penderwick's awkward attempts at dating, and Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty's plot to avoid a potential wicked stepmother. The book had me nearly in tears twice: in the prologue, which is a brief flashback to Mrs. Penderwick's last few days in the hospital, and in the following excerpt, which shows 4-year-old Batty and her dog spying on the neighbors (it certainly makes me feel a little extra mushy that the baby's name is Ben). If Batty's quiet yearning for a mom doesn't get you a little choked up, you might have been born without a soul.

They tiptoed to the forsythia border and lowered themselves quietly to the ground. Through the bottom branches of the bushes they could see the feet of the neighbors: little baby feet in red sneakers, zigzaging tipsily around the yard, and grown-up lady feet in white sneakers, following behind.
"Duck, duck, duck!" Ben was calling happily, his feet zigging and zagging even farther.
"Oh, Mr. Silliness," laughed his mother, and kept on chasing.
Batty thought Iantha had a nice voice and an even nicer laugh. It was hard to tell about Ben's voice, since he only kept saying "duck."
Now the little red sneakers stumbled, and suddenly there was an entire Ben in view. Batty pulled herself and Hound back a bit, but before the baby could notice them his mother had scooped him off the ground.
"Oh, dear, are you hurt, my Ben, my pumpkin, my lumpkin, darling Ben?"
Batty caught her breath. Yes, it was a truly extra-nice voice.
"My pumpkin, my lumpkin, darling Batty," she whispered to herself.
Ben, not hurt at all, was soon wriggling out of his mother's arms, and then all the feet disappeared and the voices stopped, and Batty knew that they'd gone back into their house.
"My pumpkin, my lumpkin, darling Batty." This time she made her voice lower, so that it would sound more like Iantha's voice.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Clockwork Contraptions and Unnatural Beasties

I've appreciated touches of the steampunk trend elsewhere: in the 1960 The Time Machine starring Rod Taylor and the curious contraptions in Hayao Miyasaki's movies. Reading Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan immersed me in this fascinating mash-up of Victorian and futuristic science and technology. Leviathan is set in an alternative version of Europe on the cusp of World War I. The first protagonist is Alek, the teenage son of assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, who is on the run from his enemies. The second protagonist is Deryn, a teenage girl masquerading as a boy in order to join the British Air Service.

In Westerfeld's mind-bogglingly creative world, Germany, Austria-Hungry, and the Ottoman Empire arm themselves with menacing steam-powered contraptions, such as nimble two-legged tanks and enormous walking land frigates. The allied Brits, French, and Russians have embraced Darwinism and genetically engineered beasts that are half animal, half machine. The greatest example is the Leviathan, a gargantuan, part-whale airship, which manages to be both an unholy perversion of the natural law and COMPLETELY AWESOME. I am certainly in a quandary over it. The military terminology and action sequences bring to my mind Hornblower's naval battles as well as Imperial walkers on Hoth.

Leviathan is the first book in a series with rather a cliffhanger ending. You can imagine my distress as I drew near to the exciting conclusion, realizing there weren't possibly enough pages left in my book to incorporate a conclusion. Although a bit slow to warm up to, the characters developed greater depth and likability as the narrative progressed, and I'm eager to follow their burgeoning friendships in the sequel(s). However, for me, the absolutely best, most mesmerizing element of this book is the illustrations, and more specifically, the map appearing on the endsheets. I could gaze at that map for hours transfixed by the eerie mythological faces forming Norway and Sweden, the warrior lion curled into the shape of Great Britain, and the slavering Russian bear with his jaws open and poised over the machinery filling the regions of Germany and Austria-Hungary. If I were to make a list of my favorite maps from books (and this does strike me as an excellent idea), that map would certainly be in the top few.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gains and Losses

My feelings during and after reading The Book Thief are difficult to express. It is excellent. I was initially concerned that a story told by Death, who describes human deaths according to the prevailing color would feel forcibly artistic or pretentious. In the end, it did not. The final words were lovely and haunting. Death's narrative bounces back and forth timewise, so you have many glimpses of events that will occur, but those events are still vague enough to be surprising. It's the story of a German girl in World War II. She's an orphan, she's poor, she's not a Nazi, and technically she's a book thief, but there's something about her thievery that doesn't feel like theft. Each theft feels like a religious experience; oftentimes it's her best way of connecting with someone she loves, and it usually feels like she's taking something that's rightfully hers.

I'm rambling. Sorry.

Liesel is an orphan, sent to live with foster parents who turn out to be quite loving, especially her father. Her three closest friends are Rudy (a boy with lemon-colored hair who loves to run), Max (the young Jewish man hiding in her basement), and the mayor's wife (a sad woman who shares her personal library). Markus Zusak claims to have based his book on tales from his parents about growing up in Germany during the war. Liesel's joys, disappointments, and profound losses do feel like real life, and like the best wartime stories, we see the worst and best humanity has to offer. There are also two illustrated books-within-the-book that are simple and moving.


Oh, gosh, I'm actually so embarrassed that is has been so long since my last post. However, it's easy to update you on my reading by subject matter: time travel, World War II, and magic. It seems like just about everything I've read in the past few months have had one or all of these themes. The magic one was really a Christmastime phase I experienced: I reread Masefield's The Box of Delights and adored it even more the second time, and because I was in the mood for that sort of thing, I reread Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle and also loved it more the second time. But all around that were gobs of time traveling and many books or shows/movies about WWII. Since January is year-end list-making frenzy time, I'm making two lists accordingly:

The Time Travel List:
The Time Travelers (or Gideon the Cutpurse) Trilogy
When You Reach Me (which recently was awarded the Newberry)
London Calling
The Lighthouse Trilogy
A Whole Nother Story (I didn't love this one, although if I were 11 years old, I'd probably think it hysterical. However, there's a time traveling device, so on the list it goes.)
The Game of Sunken Places
Doomsday Book
To Say Nothing of the Dog

The WWII List:
London Calling
To Say Nothing of the Dog
The Book Thief (separate blog post on this one to come)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Band of Brothers (viewed in full the week prior to Christmas)
Foyle's War (added to my list of all-time favorite miniseries)
Mrs. Henderson Presents (I didn't love this.)

Of course my favorites (on these lists and possibly this year) were the two Connie Willis books, which I raved about in earlier posts. I often wonder how brief a time is a reasonable wait before rereading. What do you think?