Books 5/4/05

Those of you who have read this blog for a while know of my undying love for all things Daniel Handler, especially his novel The Basic Eight. One of his trademarks is the literary references that saturate his books, and one of the great pleasures of reading his work is ferreting out each of those references. (One of my favorites is his character Esme Squalor from A Series of Unfortunate Events.)

I bring this up for a reason, this is not just gratuitous Daniel Handler love. Each of the main characters in The Basic Eight has a name that is a reference, and many of them are references to literary personae. Most of them are easy enough to determine, but the main character, Flannery Culp eluded me. Then I read something about the author Flannery O’Connor and her tendency to end her stories with something unexpected, and it clicked. The end of The Basic Eight has an unexpected ending, perhaps she was the author being referenced?

I picked up Everything that Rises Must Converge, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and I can say that I think she must be. Her stories are stunning, her descriptions are subtle and vivid, and her characters are flawed, unique, and completely recognizable. She has an incredibly defined voice, and her stories are so pointed, I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Yesterday I decided to take a walk, explore, and find the library. An hour and a half and five miles later, I found the gorgeous Santa Clara City library. It really is a beautiful library- large and well stocked, clean and quiet, nicely organized. I filled out the paperwork to get a library card, and within five minutes found three books that I’ve been wanting to read and have been holding off buying. I came home and read two of them last night, and they ended up playing an interesting counterpoint with each other.

The first is Madeline is Sleeping, by Sarah Shun Lien Bynum. I’d read a bit about this book, but nothing prepared me for the sheer oddity of it, which is by no means a bad thing. The story centers around the Madeline of the title, who, for reasons somewhat described further along in the book, has been sleeping for some time. While she sleeps, she dreams, and sometimes those dreams leak out into the real world, making her sleeping something to be cherished by the community. As her mother says, “When Madeline sleeps…the cows give double their milk.”

The story unfolds in very short chapters, and as the book progresses, it becomes difficult to tell which events are happening in which reality- it’s as though someone took a long, thin strip of paper, connected the ends, and twisted it around and through itself, until you can’t tell where it begins or ends. Bynum references various stories in her telling- Sleeping Beauty, the children’s book Madeline and the Gypsies, Middlemarch- to interesting effect. I say interesting as a cop out, because I’m not really sure what the effect is. I really liked the book, I’m just not sure what the ultimate point was.

The second book, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen, also involves a sleeping child: as it begins, a young boy lays in a coma. Louis Drax is a boy beset by tragedy. He’s the very definition of accident prone, and has had a major accident for every year of his life. On his ninth birthday, Louis goes on a picnic with his parents, and again, disaster strikes as he falls over a cliff. His father mysteriously dissapears, leaving only his mother’s testimony that she and he fought, and he pushed Louis over the cliff before running away. Louis ends up in a coma, and as the doctors struggle to bring him out of it, he is fully conscious in the world of his mind.

The story is told in two distinct voices, that of Louis, and his new doctor, who gets inescapably pulled into the mystery surrounding Louis’ life. As the doctor investigates Louis’ previous accidents, and Louis discusses them with Gustave, the man who lives in his head, contradictions and complications come at every turn. Is there a sinister cause behind the accidents? What is the truth of his parents’ past? The tension grows as inexplicable things occur, and Louis’ life may still be in danger. The resolution of the story is excellent, and validates rather than dispenses with the complications that came before.

Looking at Madeline and Louis Drax together is interesting, as both deal with children escaping into a sleep world to avoid the realities of life, and parents both instigating and trying to protect their children from those realities. Both have children struggling to understand sexuality and what it means to be an adult, and both look at what happens when that search for understanding is denied by their parents. Both sets of parents have reasons for wanting their children to wake up and stay in their sleeps- it’s very interesting.

Next up is a book that was really hard to hold off buying when I saw it in the store: Ballad of the Whisky Robber by Juian Rubenstein. It looks marvelous, and I can’t wait to start it. Which I’m going to do right now.

Current total: 31
Just finished: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen
Next Up: Ballad of the Whisky Robber by Julian Rubenstein

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