12/16/11 For the first 200 pages of Lisa Grunwald’s new novel, I really thought I was going to be writing a rave review. What an amazing premise! During the 1920s until the early 1960s, many colleges around the country, including Cornell, had home economics programs where women would learn mothering skills by caring for an infant from a local orphanage. When the baby turned two, he or she would be returned to the orphanage, adoption ready. No one had yet studied attachment disorder, and that these babies might suffer from being handled by so many “mothers” and prevented from fixing on one in particular was an idea not yet implanted in the academic–or cultural–consciousness. Thus we have Henry, who like all babies at the mythical Wilton College, is given the surname “House” (because he lives in the home economic department’s “practice house”). The unique thing about Henry, however (and a bit of a spoiler alert here), is that his biological mother is the daughter of the president of the college. She is married to a soldier, whom everyone at first thinks is dead and then turns up in Australia as a deserter. Henry is the result of a drunken one night stand with some guy, i.e., not her husband’s baby. Women seem to latch on to Henry. The head of the practice house wants to run away with him instead of returning him to the orphanage; his biological mother also harbors such fantasies. But all these adult women from Henry’s early life either lie to him or forget about him, and Henry ends up an extremely likeable, handsome young man who can’t quite get it together in a relationship. This part of the story is great. Where it takes a wrong turn is when Henry runs away from his school, and after a stint at the Disney Studios in the cartooning department working on the film of Mary Poppins (symbolism alert), moves to London to work on Yellow Submarine. We get the Beatles and Twiggy and bell bottoms and acid trips. Henry’s life becomes a trip through the culture of the 60s. And that’s boring and trite. All that’s too bad because Henry is a great character, and I had great expectations. Henry bears some resemblance to Pip, but Grunwald lets down her audience with a thud, I think. (A click on the book cover will take you to the Barnes and Noble website.)
Yes, I know. Two children’s books in a row. Not my usual fare. But bear with me a moment. Baby Boomers read children’s books because 1) there are children in our lives and/or 2) good children’s books are always fun. In that vein, let me introduce The Cats in the Doll Shop by Yona Zeldis McDonough (illustrated by Heather Maione, Viking, November 10, 2011), a really good book. I won’t give too many spoilers because you should take my advice and read it aloud to a 8 to 11-year-old. A sequel to the prize-winning The Doll Shop Downstairs, the plot features three young Jewish sisters who live on New York City’s Lower East Side during the first years of World War I. Also in the story: their cousin Tania, who arrives from an increasingly impoverished Russia that is about to explode into civil war and revolution–and two cats. McDonough in no way diminishes “for kids” Tania’s suffering and emotional bruising (from poverty in Russia and a rough passage to the U.S.A.). Neither are Tania’s pathological shyness and strange personality ticks air-brushed. The fate of some newborn stray kittens cruelly broomed off a fire escape by an unfriendly neighbor is handled in a straightforward manner. And yet the tone and plot are mostly playful, always engaging. The Cats in the Doll Shop strongly reminds me, in fact, of the “All of a Kind Family” series by Sydney Taylor I read and loved in elementary school. (Those books were skewed to a slightly older audience.) Again, we have details of Jewish life in America in the second decade of the 20th century. The book is filled with dolls made by the father and the talented young Anna. I loved that! (At this point in my writing I pause and look over at the bookshelf where several Madame Alexander ballerina dolls are posing gracefully.) Oh, no, I’m such a girly girl! So probably this is more of a girls’ book than a boys’ book, a distinction I would prefer didn’t exist, but it does, and so we should own it. If, however, a boy happens to be listening in–the cats’ stories will certainly catch his attention, as will the plot and characters. Moreover, though doll lovers, the three sisters are strong, imaginative, and resourceful, traits we want to nourish in our sons and grandsons as well as our daughters and granddaughters. McDonough includes a glossary that defines some of the Yiddish and Jewish terms used in the story (good for the non-Jewish audience she’s bound to attract, useful even for Jewish kids) along with a helpful timeline. Years cycle by and today’s youngsters are disconnected an era that while we were growing up still seemed to be the fairly recent past. Thanks to Ms. McDonough, 100 years ago seems quite in step with “now.”
First I want to say I liked this book very much. Very, very much. Second, let me take a step back and explain why I’m going to rave about a book for middle readers. Yes, I know. I don’t generally review children’s literature. The YA stuff that’s so popular today, even among adults, kind of turns me off. The writing is bad; the characters cliched. But I’ve been wondering what pre-YA kids are reading now that my own kids are young adults. Plus I want to have some book-talk for the 10-12-year-olds I know. So I was relieved to happen upon Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. I do have a soft spot for young people’s fiction set in Britain. Yep, C.S. Lewis left his mark on me. But the Bradley’s sleuthing heroine, Flavia de Luce, is too much–in a good way. An 11-year-old would be crime solver/chemist, Flavia is pretty real in her confusions about adults and her wishes and dreams. She may be unflinching in her interest in all things science, but true to her age, her eldest sister’s budding romances gross her out a bit. Flavia is also suitably bewildered by her parents (mother is dead, of course, in a good gothic meme), and she puts much effort into piecing together the world of the grown-ups around her. Like a real 11-year-old, she doesn’t even know how to ask the questions. The murder–and this is no spoiler considering the genre and the previous novels in the series–happens about half way through. That, however, does not detract at all from the intrigue and the plot, which keeps moving apace. The little details are fantastic–from how to make bird lime to the awfulness of the cook’s cakes. You know how I always can guess the plot from like the third chapter of a mystery? (Or the 15 minute mark of a movie. As I say, I’ve read Shakespeare and the Bible, and it’s all in there.) I was slightly surprised at the turn of events. But the story itself isn’t the biggest draw here. It’s Flavia de Luce and Bradley’s wit and storytelling skills. People who need a book for bedtime read-aloud to children 9 years-old and up–here’s one for you. But maybe start with the first in the series for a more extended treat. (A click on the cover will take you to the Barnes and Noble website.)
Someone said recently that if you don’t like a book, why bother reviewing it. In principle, I agree. Why spread negativity? But people are so taken aback when I say I didn’t like Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay–it is a bestseller and now a movie–that I thought I could perhaps explain it once and for all here instead of repeating myself a lot in person. Though that’s OK, too. If you see me and want to ask me why I didn’t like it, I’ll be happy to go through this again. First, a confession. Last July, my husband, who knows I like historical fiction, bought me a copy of Sarah’s Key in hardcover for my birthday. I returned it. First, I am making a transition to my iPad reader for casual reading, books I don’t think I’ll want to come back to (though that’s kind of backwards because paper books fall apart. Ebooks remain in your hard drive, which is backed up on another hard drive and maybe in a cloud . . . . I digress). Second, there is a grammatical error on the first page, “although she was not as fluent as them.” It should be “as they.” Third, the quote from Irene Nemirovsky was downright off-putting. Suite Francais is an interesting book, but her earlier novels are awful. We also now know how full of self-hatred she was and how much she despised Jews, that she would have turned Jews in to save herself. So I returned the book having read only about five pages. So now on to de Rosnay. Her technique of one chapter in the present, the next in the past, gets a bit annoying. And by the time the two stories converge, the oomph is all gone. In the beginning, for a while, when we have to imagine the little brother’s fate, it’s a bit horrifying. So the reader thinks of ways the child might have survived. De Rosnay evidently doesn’t think much of her reader’s intelligence because she puts these exact thoughts in Sarah’s mind, like “ooo. did you think of that? Maybe he’s alive.” But a careful reader knows that he isn’t because how else could the book carry on for another 150 pages. I also found her description of the mass round up in Paris not moving; nor were her chapters in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ meaningful. Ho, hum. Dead bodies. These characters are not alive, not vital. Finally, though I find the ingrained French antisemitism infuriating, I found the author’s stereotypes of the French superficial. And, at the same time, de Rosnay ends up spouting the same nonsense that we heard from the French for so long: “We did not know what was happening. We’re really good people.” And finally, finally, finally–someone who would be so obsessed with uncovering a “mystery” that bears little relation to her. We’re supposed to believe that the way Julia acts is for the good? I would recommend she see a therapist. All this being said, is it bad karma for me to say such bad things about a new novelist? I hope not. I also know that nothing I say will have an effect on the amount of money Tatiana de Rosnay rakes in from this and her next mystery, coming out soon.
It’s kind of a nice ending that I finished Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending just as he was winning the Man Booker Prize, the annual award given to a British author for a full-length work written in English. (Man Booker also gives out an “international” award every other year.) I like the concept of “full-length” here, because Barnes’s novel is so short–176 pages in hardcover. And yet, it is complete, full. Barnes gives us not only the lives of the narrator, Tony Webster, but of his friend, Adrian Finn, whose suicide many years before prompts the small movements that are the action–small although they go so deep. I am not at Tony Webster’s age; I am as everyone knows a baby boomer. But indeed I know that we rewrite our pasts as we go on with our presents. The smallest thing can roil up and change our perceptions, knock our feet off the paths of our lives. In a way this is a mystery story, and Barnes’s slowly wipes off each layer of dust until sitting before us is a truth. What happens to Tony Webster is not so horrible, and yet, at his age he has to change to accommodate truth and truths about himself. (Click on the picture to go to the Barnes & Noble site.)