Duck Duck Book

66 – disreputable history
12.4.2010, 2:43 pm
Filed under: fiction

The disreputable history of Frankie Landau-Banks : a novel / by E. Lockhart.
New York : Hyperion, c2008.
[MCL call number: y LOCKHART; 17 copies, no holds
also in large type at:  LGE-TYPE y LOCKHART 2009; three copies, no holds
and in audiobook format read by Tanya Eby Sirois at: CD YA LOCKHART; five copies, no holds
and in downloadable audiobook format read by Tanya Eby Sioris; one copy, no holds]

One of the great strengths of fiction is that it can offer readers the opportunity to pretend to be someone they are not.  This isn’t always an actual pleasure for the reader — sometimes it is quite agonizing to read the part where your protagonist embarrasses herself, takes an action that hurts a loved one, or makes a terrible mistake.  But overall, there is real joy in stepping into another person’s skin while reading their story.

Adolescence is a precarious time filled with possibilities, broken promises, discovery, and agony — making it an excellent stage of life for a fictional protagonist.  No one escapes their teenaged years unscathed.  You try something new and fail horribly, you embarrass yourself by blurting out the wrong thing, you find you have no words available when you most want to express yourself, you wish desperately for things that are made impossible by the stupid rigidity of your life and circumstances, you take emotional risks without realizing they are risks at all and then get hurt, and so on.  Adolescence is glorious in its suckitude.  But at its best it is also a period of intellectual growth, burgeoning independence, and intense joy in the experience of living.  A few soaring highs to go with the agonizing lows.

Frankie Landau-Banks is a more or less normal 15-year-old girl who happens upon a complex (and sort of infuriating) underworld at her exclusive private school.  There is a group of boys, one of whom is Frankie’s new boyfriend Matthew, running a secret society.  No girls allowed.  This offends Frankie’s sense of fairness, but more importantly, she wants in.

She doesn’t want in just to break a barrier, or just to get closer to Matthew — after some self-examination, Frankie realizes that what she wants most is to be recognized as intelligent, interesting, clever, and worthy of the friendship and admiration of this powerful group of kids.  But, not only do they dismiss her as too young and too female to be worthy of more than cursory attention, they don’t even realize it when she finds a way to insinuate herself into their affairs.  After a few months, she is running their whole show, three steps ahead of even the club’s savvy co-president, masterminding elaborate pranks and creating an unheard of buzz among the student body.  Obviously she’s going to get found out, right?

[thanks, Joanna]


66 – these yams are delicious
12.4.2010, 2:40 pm
Filed under: comix, fiction, zines

These yams are delicious / Sam Sharpe
Chicago, IL : Viewotron Press, c2009.
[MCL call number: ZINE 741.5973 SHARPE 2009; six copies, no holds]

A frustrated cartoonist is trying to work, but is interrupted at his drafting table by his cat.  And then he is interrupted again by his cat, this time wearing a space helmet and accompanied by, um, his cat.  The cartoonist and the cat and the cat with the space helmet are then joined by the cartoonist in a space helmet, who reveals that they’re visiting from the future.  Unfortunately, the frustrated cartoonist’s future self is a little cranky, and not very interested in giving counsel on what the future brings.

Sam Sharpe’s cartooning is beautiful, clear, and effective; and the story is so short, sweet, and odd that I found it merited re-reading several times, pretty much immediately.

54 – the latke
05.19.2008, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The latke who couldn’t stop screaming : a Christmas story / by Lemony Snicket ; illustrations by Lisa Brown.
San Francisco : McSweeny’s Books ; c2007.
[MCL call number: j Holiday SNICKET; 17 copies, no holds]

Sometimes it is difficult to review a book with only words as tools. This book is short enough that if you were here, I could read it aloud to you, showing the pictures along the way like any good parent, babysitter, auntie, or children’s librarian. You would laugh, you might cry, and you would definitely learn some basic facts about the miracle of Hanukkah and how frustrating it is to be misunderstood.

But since this is not possible, perhaps you will take my very terse introduction to heart, seek out the book, and read it aloud to someone you know. Or ask them to read it to you.

[thanks, Markrid]

51 – emily’s runaway imagination
02.4.2008, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

Emily’s runaway imagination / Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush.
New York, Morrow, 1961.
[MCL call number: j CLEARY; five copies, one hold; one copy reference only at Central Library]

Emily lives in Pitchfork, a tiny town in Yamhill County, Oregon, in the 1920s. As her story begins, she has just received a letter from her cousin Muriel, a girl her own age who lives in Portland and is blessed with a public library to provide her with a copy of Black Beauty. Emily thinks it is punishingly unfair that Pitchfork has no library, from which she might also borrow a copy of Black Beauty, and tells her mother as much. Emily’s mother is not only sympathetic, but proactive, and that very day she writes to the State Library in Salem to inquire about how the citizens of Pitchfork might set up their own library. As the book progresses and Emily has other adventures, the town’s library slowly moves from idea to reality, with the help of Emily, her mother, and many of their friends and neighborhoods.

(As you can imagine, this is a story that makes the heart of any public librarian glad. And perhaps particularly so a public librarian here in Oregon, where rural and small town libraries, like many cultural institutions outside the glare of urban areas, are both strong and weak. And it is worth noting, for those of you who think of her merely as the famed and award-winning author of the Ramona books, that Beverly Cleary is a librarian as well as a writer, so perhaps the storyline is no surprise. But I digress. . .)

Emily is vivacious and energetic, and although she often makes mistakes or confuses things unnecessarily in the course of her many adventures, the turmoil is relatively sedate. There is no terrible upset for her to undo — trouble is sorted out in short order and with the comforting mantle of family and community around her Emily is safe to muddle about until she finds the path she means to take.

And the stories are fast-paced, almost self-contained little novel-ettes in each chapter: Emily helps her mother throw a party for the matrons of the town, she dresses up a plow horse like a graceful steed when her cousin Muriel comes to visit, she drives around with her grandfather in his newfangled automobile, she makes a homely looking custard pie, and so on. This would be a very good book for reading out loud at bedtime — each chapter is substantial and reads almost a separate story, but the tale of the town’s library is always in the background providing a nice sense of continuity, accomplishment, and civic togetherness.

51 – i capture the castle
02.4.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: fiction

I capture the castle / by Dodie Smith.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
[MCL call number: FICTION SMITH; eight copies, one hold;
also in audiobook format at MCL call number CD FICTION SMITH; two copies, no holds]

There is a particular type of novel, the story of genteel poverty, which may be familiar to contemporary readers, but which is not often written now. Generally the actual plot is about something besides poverty — romance, a kind of literary situation comedy, the trials of adolescence, or another medium-weight topic. But a major feature of this particular kind of book is the poverty of the main characters. They are really destitute. They have little or no income, their earning potential is incredibly slight, and although they just manage to have someplace to live, they are having trouble feeding and clothing themselves. Our heroes are people who weren’t always poor, and they’re vaguely guilty about not being able to figure out how to stop being poor. For reasons of family background, education, or profession (which of course boil down to class, more or less), they are expected to be financially comfortable, and their friends and acquaintances are embarrassed to see them in poverty.

Perversely, another feature of this kind of novel is that the intense contrast between the main characters’ potential for wealth and comfort, and their actual dismal poverty makes them seem more unfortunate than people who are socially expected to be poor. They have fallen very far, and everyone (people in the novel, and readers) is supposed to find them sympathetically pitiable for this.

As I said, novels of genteel poverty are not currently in vogue. There are a few nineteenth century American stories with genteel poverty elements — Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott is a familiar one — but the more recent examples I have encountered are all British, and I Capture the Castle, written and set in the 1940s, is one of these.

Cassandra Mortmain is the middle child in her family, and she is a writer. She begins the diary which forms the text of the novel with a sort of mission statement:

“I am writing this journal partly to practice my newly acquired speed-writing and partly to teach myself how to write a novel — I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations. It ought to be good for my style to dash along without much thought, as up to now my stories have all been very stiff and self-conscious.” (page 4)

Cassandra and her very odd family are holed up in an antique house built onto a medieval castle, and since they have no money they do not entertain or travel. They are friendly with the local vicar, who is not very heavy-handed on the question of religion, and with the village librarian, who delivers books to her patrons by bicycle.

The family’s quiet, impoverished life is interrupted by the arrival of new neighbors — a pair of American brothers who have inherited the local manor house and attached fortune from their grandfather. The brothers have inherited the role of the Mortmain family’s landlords, and almost immediately Cassandra’s older sister Rose sets out to get the older brother (the one with the money) to marry her. This Jane Austen-style romance plot is surprisingly compatible with the 20th century setting, even as it exposes the family’s sometimes shameful conspiracy to aid Rose’s fortune hunting. In the meantime, Cassandra’s father is researching his second novel — he wrote one 15 or so years earlier, which was very successful and very post-modern. He won’t explain his work to anyone, but his research seems to consist entirely of doing crossword puzzles and reading mystery novels, which confuses and worries his loved ones, who fear he may be going mad.

It is not so difficult to imagine some of the direction of the plot, with this short introduction in hand. There is romance, and romantic trickery. There are several painful scenes of poverty intruding on the family’s ability to eat well, to dress appropriately for social occasions, and generally to rise to their station. There is quite a bit of friendly bohemianism, stimulating intellectual conversation, and distressing adherence to society dictums. It is not so much the plot, though, that drives this novel. The people in the story are compelling, and not just for their oddness — what makes the novel worth reading is that Cassandra remains true to her initial project to practice for writing a novel — her descriptions of events, conversations, and her own observations and feelings are rich and complicated. She gets at the detail without missing the bigger picture and without having to actually recount every single thing that takes place. Cassandra’s narrative exposes the network of events as they occur, to be sure; but the real joy is getting to know the people, their habits, their interests, their desires, their feelings for each other, their limits, and their strengths.

* * *

If you need another slightly romancy early 20th century novel about an intelligent young woman finding a way to master her own destiny, set in the framework of a very similar genteel poverty, you might try Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons.

* * *

Dodie Smith is perhaps most famous for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is worth reading even if you think you know the whole story from the movie.

49 – bookhunter
09.17.2007, 12:04 am
Filed under: comix, fiction

Bookhunter [comic book] / Jason Shiga.
[Portland, OR] : Sparkplug Comic Books, 2007
[Multnomah County Library does not yet have this book, but it has been ordered and should have the call number GN SHIGA; eight copies, one hold]

Imagine that crimes against the library were taken more seriously than they currently are, and you might picture a world in which a crack team of special agents guards the physical and institutional integrity of the Oakland Public Library. In Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter, the library’s police force fills this role amply and well. After an introductory story of a short encounter with a censor (who has stolen all eight copies of The China Lobby in America), Bookhunter follows Agents Bay, Walker, and Finch as they track down an accomplished and slippery rare book thief who has switched out the library’s priceless Caxton bible for a fake.

Bookhunter makes a few erroneous technical assertions that may annoy librarians and other bookish people, but on the whole the world of the library is faithfully articulated in the story, and especially in Shiga’s realistic-cartoon-y drawing style. An early scene follows Agent Bay as he wanders the public and private areas of the Oakland’s Main Library, pondering the methods used by the Caxton thief. The twelve pages of Bay’s quiet library tour are perhaps the most beautiful in the entire book — the circulation desk, the periodicals room, a microfiche reader, the massive 1970s-era catalog in its cardfile, the reading room, the restrooms, the bookmobile; and everywhere patrons, seemingly endless bookstacks, and the gracious spaces that make up the large public rooms of the main library.

The story is action-adventure at its best — the thrill of the chase, the grind of nuts-and-bolts police work, and lovingly related details of setting, personality, and plot make Bookhunter worthy of the attention of comics lovers, library lovers, and undoubtedly many other folk as well.

[thanks, Kristian]

48 – outcasts of 19 schuyler place
08.1.2007, 6:55 pm
Filed under: fiction

The outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place / E.L. Konigsburg.
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2004.
[MCL call number: y KONIGSBUR; 12 copies, no holds;
also in large type at: LGE-TYPE y KONIGSBUR; five copies, no holds]

Margaret Rose Kane has just been rescued from an unpleasant summer camp by her beloved great-uncle Alex — Margaret’s parents are in Peru for the summer working on an architectural dig to see if they still want to be married to each other, and Margaret wasn’t allowed to come.  Anyway, camp was horrible and Margaret is greatly relieved that she’ll spend the rest of her summer with Alex and his brother Morris, who live together in an old house in a neighborhood that has been unfashionable for a long time. 

But now their neighborhood is getting gentrified, and the upwardly mobile folks who are moving in have successfully petitioned the city to remove the beautiful handmade towers the two brothers spent 45 years building in their back yard.  Margaret learns about the towers’ fate shortly after her arrival at her uncles’ house — it’s completely decided; there has already been a hearing where all sides had a chance to argue their positions, and the city has determined that the towers are unsafe (there aren’t even any structural plans showing how they were built!) and a direct violation of the city’s zoning code. 

Margaret really has no idea exactly how she is going to do it, but she is going to save the towers.