Saturday, August 09, 2008

Number 21 is The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean. Dean wrote one of my all time favourite books Tamlin. I reread that book over and over again. So, because of this long term affection for Tamlin, I've of course read other books by Dean, hoping others have been as good.

They haven't. Basically, I've been pretty disappointed with the rest of her output overall. I wasn't even able to finish The Hidden Country which was about a group of children who find their way into another world (yeah, what SHOULDN'T I like about this conceit?), but the kids are so damn precocious I just couldn't handle them after awhile. So I stopped.

The Dubious Hills also have precocious children, but I was better able to handle them. The main character, Arry is all of fourteen years old and is raising her younger brother Beldi (9) and sister, Con (6). Their parents basically disappeared one day and that was that. Fortunately, the community they live in, the Dubious Hills is a true community, everyone helps everyone and pretty much begrudges no one anything.

This is due to a rather strange spell that was placed on the community ages ago, after a particularly devestating wizards' war. The wizards decided that war could be avoided if no one person had too much knowledge, so they made it that every person in the Dubious Hills would know only about one specific knowledge, or 'province' as they call them. So only one person knows about history, only one person knows about stories, only one can tell if things are beautiful or not, only one can explain the intricacies of language, etc. This makes for a community thoroughly dependent on one another, but strangely, they're not ignorant. They have no problem in admitting they do not know something, because basically, there will be a person who does.

Arry's province is that of pain. Pain is something only she can experience, on behalf of the others, so she can tell them if they are hurt or not. This makes her the Physci, obviously one of the more important provinces of knowledge, and it seems to be a difficult province for one so young to have. But Arry is smart and has had to grow up slightly quicker than she would probably like to, and she is forced to grow up even more when the wolves start coming around.

Like all good fairy tales, there are wolves in this one. And the wolves bring a knowledge of their own, a complete one, where they have lost their specialized knowledge, but now have a wider, more worldly knowledge. One of the wolves, the Hills' teacher, wants everyone in the Hills to follow his path and become a wolf. But not everyone wants this. They are content with what they know. They live in a very peaceful, almost idyllic place. Everyone knows everyone and everyone shares with everyone. This is something the wolf threatens to shatter.

The ending seemed to come from almost nowhere, and I almost wondered how they jumped to the conclusion on how to deal with the wolf, because it was an option that was never really touched on much throughout. Violence wasn't part of their lives (from what I could tell) before the wolves came, so I did wonder how they reached the decision to use it.

Overall though, I did enjoy this book far more than I have her other efforts. Its a well crafted world with an interesting idea (the knowledge provinces) and has that good sense of the familiar but still definitely Other. While I don't love it as much as Tamlin, I may revisit this one again.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

I'm actually a couple of books behind on this, I read two more during my vacation but have yet to write anything. I think that's the first time I've ever fallen behind on the writing, its usually the reading I fall behind on...

ANYWAY! Books 19 and 20 are That Old Ace in the Hole by Anne Proulx and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

That Old Ace in the Hole deals with Bob Dollar, originally from Denver, where he was raised by a junk store owning uncle after his parents basically abandoned him on the uncle's doorstep, trying to find his place in the world. He's finished college and rather aimless (yeah, we've all been there), so he takes a job with Global Pork Rind, a big business pork farming company, scouting out big spreads of land that can be converted to hog farms. He's given a list of instructions by his not very symapthetic new boss (ie. find some place to set up base of operations, find out a little history to the town, don't tell them why you're there, befriend some of the natives, etc.) Soon he''s holed up in a tiny Texas town called Woolybucket, where he settles into LaVon Fronk's old bunkhouse for fifty dollars a month, helps out at Cy Frease''s Old Dog Café, and learns the hard way how vigorously the old Texas ranch owners will hold on to their land, even when their children want no part of it.

It's a novel about history and family and all the ways those are intertwined. Bob's personal history is not easy, but isn't bad either. When his parents abandoned him at age 8, he was taken in by his Uncle Tam, who owns a second hand/junk store. They live upstairs from the store, and are pretty poor, but Tam is kind and good to Bob and never makes his nephew feel like a burden. Bob wonders a lot about his absent parents, but they don't figure too prominently into the story. What Bob though is really looking for, is a place where he feels he belongs.

Once Bob gets to Woolybucket, he immerses himself into the culture of the town, and into the town (and surrounding county), listening to countless stories told to him and reading a journal detailing the first surveying of the surrounding county in the late 1800s. The narrative of the novel is told in lots of flashbacks that aren't really flashbacks, as we get to know the colorful characters of Woolybucket.

As always in a Prouxl novel, the characters are slightly off-kilter, there's lots of strange happenings, a little bit of tragedy, lots of good language, and just plain great description of the landscape. Prouxl's just so good at describing surroundings. The ending of this novel left me feeling kinda... unsatisfied at first. It is basically a happy ending, but at first it felt too pat to me, but once I thought about it, it really wasn't, as it was the logical ending that was being proposed from the beginning, and I, like Bob himself, didn't see that right away. So basically, Anne's yet to let me down.

Number 20 of the year is A Farewell to Arms. Even now, a couple of weeks after finishing this puppy, I realize I don't have much to say about it, even though its a great piece of literature, etc. The thing is, found this book wildly divergent in its tone. It takes place during WWI, on the Italian front, and tells the story of American ambulance driver Lt. Henry, and his love affair with English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Despite there being a war on, Henry seems to have a pretty sweet life. He's living in an Italian villa with others (mainly Italians) fighting the war, in particular a surgeon who is Henry's best friend. He meets Catherine and begins wooing her, and much of the first part of the novel is taken up with going to cafes and drinking wine and teasing the local priest; WWI in Italy sounds nearly idyllic here in comparison to dying in the mud of the trenches on the Western Front. I did find the relationship between Catherine and Henry to be almost... pathetically juvenille and even a little creepy at first. Catherine seems so... desperate for Henry's approval and love that it made me uncomfortable. She seems more invested in the relationship at first than he does.

However, about half way through the novel comes a pretty good shift in tone. The war actually intrudes and then we're reminded how Hemingway is one of the best there is at describing war. Henry is driving at the front when he gets wounded. He sees comrades die, and isn't even entirely sure he'll walk again. He is transferred to a hospital, and so is Catherine. Once again, things become almost idyllic as he and Catherine deepen their relationship (and it becomes very, very physical), and so the tone of their relationship switches too, where I felt that Henry was more invested in it than she was. But maybe that's just because he finally arrived at the emotional place she was, while hers remained unchanged. But, the war intrudes again and Henry is sent back to the front.

At this point, the war is going badly for the Italians and they are facing a hard push by combined Austrian/German forces. They cannot hold the line, and so retreat, but the retreat becomes more disorganized and scary than the actual fighting does, with demoralized men and frightened nationals picking out scapegoats from their own army and executing them for deriliction of duty in mock 'trials'. Henry is singled out for this form of 'justice', but manages to escape. He basically goes AWOL and ends up finding Catherine. At this point, he is done with the war and he and Catherine (who is now pregnant with Henry's child) go to Switzerland (after narrowly avoiding arrest) to await the birth of their child. Their idyllic life returns.

However, honestly, the ending of this novel is so gawdawful depressing that I threw it down with those very words. Yes, sometimes Hemingway likes to end on a down note, like in For Whom the Bell Tolls, although that one didn't feel so down, or on a very up note (literally) in The Sun Also Rises. Needless to say, I preferred both of those books over this one. The ending really did make me not like it.