The Chocolate War

I’m almost unsure of what to write about The Chocolate War at this point, partly because I feel like it really surprised my expectations–but not in a particularly good or bad way. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I guess it wasn’t this. And yet…

The story–and Cormier’s approach–has a lot going for it. For one, there’s the fact that this anti-hero/non-conformist story is set in the mid-to-late 60s, which provides a nice background and context for the main action at Trinity school. There’s a sort of anxiety about the book–for instance, characters talk about ‘The Bomb’ being dropped a lot–without really overdoing the set piece. Jerry has one important interaction with an aggressive hippie who calls him ‘square boy,’ and this makes an impact on him, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story, which could just as easily be set in contemporary times. But I imagine that if one read this book while learning about Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement in history class, it would carry a good deal of punch to it.

I mentioned Cormier’s approach before, and I mean this in a few ways. Firstly, there’s the fact that he uses multiple narrators. This does a few things. It provides a nice insight to the many character’s psychology and motivation, while at the same time not privileging anyone’s viewpoint. Now that’s not to say that Archie, for instance, doesn’t come off like a really demonic sort of manipulator, but all the same, he’s humanized in a way that was really refreshing. We’re shown his vulnerabilities and fears and misgivings the same as we’re shown Jerrry’s or The Goober’s. And in this way, we’re forced to consider the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of his actions, as much his the actions themselves. He’s still a ‘bad guy,’ but he’s humanized.

The other thing about this book is that Cormier actually doesn’t really establish a final statement in the novel. He opens a door with the T.S. Elliot “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” quote and the whole ‘do your own thing’ motto pursued by Jerry, but his perspective on whether going against the grain is actually worth it is never really solidified. It’s obvious that he believes that society will destroy individualists and resort to mob mentality when confronted with someone who defies pack logic–and it even seems at the end that Jerry himself has come to believe that all of his ideals were for naught. (“He had to tell Goober to play ball…to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing, but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your own thing unless it happens to be their thing, too.”)

But all the same, it didn’t feel entirely clear to me whether Cormier was viewing this as a sort of noble sacrifice. They type of small gestures that bring about great change, even at the expense of the individual. There’s the threat at the end of the book that Archie will ‘get his’–that he’ll draw a white marble next time and have to enact his own assignment, that “another kid like Renault will come along” and challenge the powers that be again.

Not that this helps Jerry any, of course.

Forever

I’ve just started a class on Young Adult fiction and Forever, identified as a ‘classic,’ is one of the first assigned readings. This is, I believe, my first Judy Blume novel. I was aware of Are You There, God? and other Blume novels, but don’t think I ever actually read one. And I have to say, after reading this one, I kind of love Judy Blume. She’s so straightforward and educationally-minded, while still really getting the blushing, bursting, totally obsessive quality of teenage love, which she regards (very practically) as fleeting, but still treats in a completely endearing manner. Some highlights and observations:

1. Right off the bat: the male character (Michael) names his penis. Names it Ralph, to be precise. Both he and Katherine (the narrator) speak to it in the third person. This is endlessly amusing, if still a little creepy, but totally cracked me up while I was reading it on the train. For instance:

“Katherine…I’d like you to meet Ralph…Ralph, this is Katherine. She’s a very good friend of mine.” [scene continues, yada yada:] Katherine: “‘Did I do okay…considering my lack of experience?’ He laughed, then put his arms around me. ‘You did just fine…Ralph liked it a lot.'”

2. Judy Blume loves Planned Parenthood. Katherine’s grandmother is described as being “busy with politics and Planned Parenthood and NOW,” and there is a whole, extensive scene in which Katherine secretly (although not ashamedly–which is important) goes to a Planned Parenthood in New York City to get birth control after she has sex the first time. The whole scene is played very educationally and step-by-step. First, you make the appointment, then the nice lady on the phone confirms that you don’t need parental consent. Then you see a counselor, then you have your pelvic exam and the doctor shows you your cervix in a mirror because “it’s a good idea to become familiar with your body,” and then you leave with the pill. It’s frank, but encouraging, and feels much a scene that was written in the 1970s–which it was. The doctor doesn’t ask Katherine if she takes intravenous drugs, doesn’t tell her outright that she should get tested for gonorrhea because her boyfriend is cheating on her (as has recently happened to a friend of mine).

In other words, this is still the first real phase of optimistic sexual liberation and education, and, as Judy (we’ve just now gotten on a first name basis, she and I) points out in her updated author’s note, “When I wrote Forever in the mid-seventies, sexual responsibility meant preventing unwanted pregnancy. Today, sexual responsibility also means preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, which can kill you.”

3. Both Katherine and Michael seem to be rather flat as characters—you know things about them (she doesn’t like hot dogs, he is a qualified ski instructor)—without really knowing much about their motivations, goals, history, etc. But this actually seems to work in the book’s favor in two main ways. For one, these characters are teenagers and haven’t known each other for very long at all. It makes sense that they don’t actually know that much about each other, but rather, are aware of sort of broad qualities that the other person has. So this vagueness actually fits the age group rather well. Secondly, by leaving Katherine rather hazily drawn, the reader can more easily identify with one of them, putting herself in Katherine’s place and imagining how she might react herself.

4. One of the things that the book (through the voice of the adult characters) takes the most issue with is not the idea that Katherine is having sex, but rather that she has committed herself to one boyfriend. People talk of her being “tied down to one boy” and tell her that “forever’s one hell of a long time for a kid like you.” Katherine’s parents send her away to summer camp in part to separate her from Michael. I find this fascinating when you compare this stance with the one laid out in Twilight, for instance, which specifically creates an eternal love between the protagonist and her (eternal) boyfriend. I have not yet come to a conclusion about what this means about a change in adult/public attitudes towards teenage relationships and/or love, but again, it’s fascinating.

5. Minor irritant. The constant, perpetual ellipses. I know–these are even part of the book’s title (it’s actually Forever… but I’ve been to lazy to write it out). And I get that this both suggests a love without ending and also poses a question (Forever?). But seriously, these characters–of all ages, in all circumstances–cannot speak without trailing off at every given moment. The pages are literally peppered with ellipses and it’s visually annoying. If it were only during moments where characters feel awkward and confused, that would be one thing, but it’s seriously out of control. After awhile, I compulsively started reading them as “dot dot dot” in my head.

Anyway, I really got a kick out of this hippie, sexually responsible, doe-eyed romance that (gasp!) ends so soon after it begins, even though the characters have sworn up and down for many, many days, to love each other For-Ev-Er. I leave you with a quote:

“We kissed one more time and then he touched my face gently and said, ‘I love you, Katherine. I really mean it…I love you.’

I could have said it back to him right away. I was thinking it all along. I was thinking, I love you, Michael. But can you love someone you’ve seen just nineteen times in your life?”

Aw. I love you, Judy.

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee

I had the pleasure of reading Plants Don’t Drink Coffee at the end of 2009, and it was a rather delightful way of ringing out the year. As Chad Post over at Three Percent noted in his preface to the review I published for their (phenomenal, one-of-a-kind) site, the author, Unai Elorriaga, is one of only one or two Basque writers to have been published in English. So all due credit to the curatorial prowess of Archipelago Books, who have brought out many really wonderful  translations over the years from underrepresented countries and regions.

The full text of my review is below; you can also read it on the Three Percent website here.

***

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.

With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”

This is what Iñes told me and her eyes were full of mystery when she said it: “The person who catches the blue dragonfly . . .” she said and then she went quiet. And then she did this thing with her lips, and turned them upwards and downwards, and that always means she is about to reveal a mystery, a big one, and then she added: “. . . becomes the most intelligent person in the world.” . . . This is why I want to be the one to catch the blue dragonfly. Iñes doesn’t need it. Iñes is already intelligent. Not me. This is why I want to be the one to catch Orthetrum coerulescens. To be like a doctor. Because doctors are the most intelligent people in the world.

While Iñes and Tomas search for their dragonfly, several other quixotic occupations consume their family and friends. Uncle Simon is secretly creating a rugby field on a local golf course. Cousin Mateo is investigating stories about his prankish grandfather, Aitite Julian, who just may have been the greatest carpenter in all Europe. Then there is Piedad, an elderly woman who visits Aunt Martina’s dress shop each day to talk about her lost love, the famous English architect Samuel Mud.

Through these small, earnest dramas, the reader becomes immersed in the complexity of each character’s life—the moments and people which have indelibly defined them. Theirs are stories of reconciliation and loss, affirmation and understanding. But while each of their experiences may be familiar—the death of a parent, the loss of a lover, the realization of an unlikely ambition—Elorriaga renders each with a quirky individuality and a refreshing lack of irony. The sense of innocent discovery that accompanies Tomas’ daily pronouncements—”[S]ome people wear glasses. Fish don’t wear glasses, but people who wear glasses and fish are similar because they both can’t see well.”—is equally present in Uncle Simon’s persistent calls to Ireland, volunteering his services as a rugby linesman. In the mischievous carvings on an armoire built by Aitite Julian. In Piedad’s strawberry-patterned dresses and imaginary cat named Samuel Mud.

Replete with small joys and charming revelations, Plants Don’t Drink Coffee will delight readers with its simple wisdom, delightful prose, and capricious cast of steadfast dreamers.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

My first P.D. James novel (and also the first book I finished in our bright and shiny new decade), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is precisely the type of crime novel that I can really get behind: ample backstory and character development, rich setting, sordid–but not gratuitously violent–circumstances, surprising secrets revealed (but no silly plot twists with new evil villains), and a general sense that solving the case and finding out ‘what really happened’ may not actually make things any better in the end. (That’s a lot of key requirements to have for a novel, I know, but every so often, they are all incorporated together and the result is deeply satisfying.)

Cordelia Gray is a fully realized character, with James perhaps providing a fair amount of information about her past–that her father was “an itinerant Marxist poet and amateur revolutionary”; that she spent six years being educated in convent school by accident–which is not entirely relevant to the plot (or, actually, to our understanding of how Cordelia reacts in particular situations), but interesting and well wrought all the same. Cordelia is “a survivor” in her own words, a young woman isolated from her peers without confidants, susceptible to fear and unease and self-consciousness, but still resourceful and resilient when forced into tough situations.

She’s is also ethical, but not prigish or overly moralistic, a quality which becomes vital to the plot, but is also–I think–vital to the character of a novice private eye. I personally tire equally of honor-bound vigilantes operating above the law on their righteous missions and of staunchly by-the-book police officers with a sense of obligation to the service of wholly legal justice. (Characters of the latter style, are, of course, not really in vogue these days, but are no less tiresome when they do shamble along.) At any rate, Cordelia fits somewhere in the middle of these stereotypes, and is rather fresh, fallible, and very likable for it.

Cordelia’s character (and her commie background, for that matter) are part and parcel of the time and world that James has set her story in. The novel takes place in Cambridge, England in the seventies. There is a feeling in the story that a very recent sense of idealism and change has given way to a more cynical decadence. And although this cynicism is expressed in response to a variety of ideals and circumstances–justice, truthfulness, morality–this comes across particularly in Cordelia and other character’s discussions of sexual relationships. Characters–particularly female characters–are sexually frank and unabashed, but overtly skeptical and not a little derisive about their experiences. We’re told that Cordelia “…had never thought of virginity as other than a temporary and inconvenient state, part of the general insecurity and vulnerability of being young.” Having discovered her son in a surprising sexual situation, one woman sardonically comments, “We’re all sexually sophisticated these days.” We’re also told that Cordelia grew up with a band of hodge-podge ‘comrades’ for whom “sexual activities were…more a weapon of revolution or a gesture against the bourgeois mores they despised than a response to human need.” This pervading sense of unromantic realism provides a useful background for the circumstances of Mark Callender’s death, particularly as we learn more about his own idealism and the progressively complicated circumstances of his suicide.

I should also note that James is really a lovely prose writer–descriptive without staid embellishment, observant and lyrical while still getting to the point. Consider a passage where Cordelia is attacked later in the book (no worries–I won’t say by who or why):

She wasn’t expecting trouble outside the cottage and the attack took her by surprise. There was the half-second of pre-knowledge before the blanket fell but that was too late…The movement of liberation was a miracle and a horror. The blanket was whipped off. She never saw her assailant. There was a second of sweet reviving air, a glimpse, so brief that it was barely comprehended, of blinding sky seen through greenness and then she felt herself falling, falling in helpless astonishment into cold darkness. The fall was a confusion of old nightmares, unbelievable seconds of childhood terrors recalled. Then her body hit the water. Ice-cold hands dragged her into a vortex of horror…She shook her head, and, through her stinging eyes, she looked up. The black tunnel that stretched above her ended in a moon of blue light. Even as she looked, the well lid was dragged slowly back like the shutter of a camera. The moon became a half moon; then a crescent. At last there was nothing but eight thin slits of light.

All said, this was a nice start to the year’s reading, and I’ll certainly pick up another James book soon.