I have no idea how I ended up with Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver in my book bag. (Tove Jansson is the author of the Moomintroll series, which is wonderful also, but in a different way.) Did I see it on one of those “other people bought this” recommendations on Amazon? Did a blogger mention it? Was it face up on a bookstore table? Where do our books come from, anyway? But if I get into THAT then I will not write about THIS, which is, right now, more interesting,
The True Deceiver is a simple story, set in a village in Scandinavia during the winter. The writing is beautifully spare, psychologically astute and the story it tells is an utterly unique one, or at least it was to me. The story is driven by the desire of Katri, a woman the village children call a witch because she has yellow eyes and a wolf-like dog, to find a home for her brother who seems to be “simple” but might just be quiet. Katri, who is a business-like, straightforward, truth teller, focuses on Anna, an innocent-seeming, older woman who is the author of children’s books which feature meticulous drawings of the forest floor in the spring and rabbits covered in flowers. The two women could not be more different and it is inevitable that when Katri comes into Anna’s home and uses truth as a kind of deceit neither of them will be the same when the snow melts.
The book is about honesty and artifice and what happens to us when we encounter and engage in them. Jansson has a remarkable eye and ear for human behavior and a true compassion for her characters. She began writing for adults when she was in her 50s, and I wonder how much that has to do with the beauty of her work. It’s as though she’s figured out just how much she needs to say and no more. Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, True Deceiver is a meticulously crafted novel that carefully charts the relationships among an isolated group of characters. I’d put it in the literary fiction category of my summer reading, although it’s so transcendent that I wonder if maybe we should invent another category for it.
Let’s see, points totals: Nobody recommended this, not as far as I could tell, so not points there. I did not check it out from the library (which makes me think I bought it at a bookstore. Or stole it, since I can’t remember where it came from — a little bit like Katri, actually.) Definitely no points there. But I did write it down and write about it and I snuck in Housekeeping in case you’re wondering what other beautiful book it reminds me of. 30 BlogLily Summer Reading Program Points. (But then I don’t get the boomerang — or other prize — because I’m pretty sure that’s totally not allowed.)
I adore George Smiley. You probably do too, because you probably have already read all the John leCarre books that feature him. Lucky me, I had not, which is why I chose two of them as my BlogLily Summer Reading Program (which I like to think of, acronymically, as B-SLURP) genre choices. The first, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the second, the Honorable Schoolboy, are among the best books I’ve read in a very long time.
George Smiley, who is at the center of both books (and a third I haven’t yet read, called A Perfect Spy thank you Joe, for pointing out that the third book is actually called Smiley’s People), is basically all about righting the sinking ship that is the British secret service in the 1960s and 1970s. Smiley’s work is not triumphant or inevitable, as maybe an American’s might be — in Smiley’s world, there are no rocket launching cars or poison gas shooting pens. Instead, budgets are tight, and notes are delivered later than they should be because people get busy, there’s little political support for Smiley, and plenty of Americans who look down on the British as the worst kind of amateurs. These books are imbued with a kind of melancholy, not so much about a lost world or lost values, but more about aging and endings in general and the losses that come with them. They are about the cold war, of course, but also about the compromises of age, about the fatigue of living, and about the way in which we still go on and try to protect, as best we can, the things we have built or have admired as they were built.
Which brings me to Smiley — a man in his sixties who wears beautifully made suits that are too big for him, marries a beautiful woman (Lady Ann) who, like his suits, doesn’t fit him, and so leaves him again and again to his sorrow, but never anger. Smiley closes his eyes and thinks when someone tells him something you’d expect to make him shout, and pads around and patiently figures out the most complicated things, not with flashes of insight, but by looking closely at the budgets for old projects, while he never puts sugar in his tea or coffee — always saccharine — because he is, regrettably, watching his weight (how delicate is that? he is never “on a diet.”) In most spy books, characters either have no limits or their limits are weaknesses they must fight against. Not so with Smiley. He has plenty of limits, but they seem to all be external. He is a man who appears to some — the more foolish people in these stories, in fact — to be weak and ineffectual, but he is anything but.
If it is true that plot is simply character in action, then leCarre’s plots are also brilliant. After a while you don’t care that the twists and turns of the story are difficult to follow because you realize, or you accept, that the plot isn’t really the point — the point is that the world is terribly imperfect, and dangerous and difficult to understand and men struggle with these things bravely and often fail but sometimes don’t. And that occasionally, and at great price, a temporary equilibrium is achieved. It is leCarre’s greatness that this balance is created not by strong confident men with sports cars but by almost finished men who nevertheless have a kind of wisdom that I, for one, am grateful to have come across this summer.
It was an arts & crafts kind of weekend, blog friends. Specifically, I spent an embarrassing amount of time making bookmarks and booklets and sizing up my stash of stationery items to see what else might go in the official BlogLily Summer Reading Program mailers. I also made one thrilling trip to Elmwood Stationers, our neighborhood independent stationery store that I, alone, keep robustly profitable. On that trip, I acquired clear plastic gift bags in which to stick the BLSRP mailers. These classy items were a revelation to me. I had no idea that a private individual could acquire stuff like this, thinking as I did that they were specially made for far fancier operations. Apparently not. Total cost of classy stationery items: 2.99. Everything else: free. (Well, except for the Martha Stewart folding contraption, which is actually very cool and I am certain will not gather dust, being useful as well as cool.)
If you have given me your address, your mailer should arrive soon. If you have not, please send it to me at email@example.com. For you latecomers, your version of the BLSRP mailer will reflect the many ways in which my arts & crafts skills improved throughout the weekend. For example, I learned that the proper amount of glue is a lot less than I thought it was. Actually, the votes are still out on that. If you get a bookmark that starts to fall apart, don’t tell me, okay? Just glue it back together.
Tomorrow, I have a guest poster who’s got some ideas about good summer reads.
Here is my first BlogLily Summer Reading Program report. Haha. I am ahead of everyone else because I have the prototype program booklet thing in my hands. (Yours goes out this Friday.) But then again, I am not actually competing for any of the prizes because that is not allowed. It’s not allowed ever in any program of any kind, is it? Still, in the interest of participating in all the fun, here is my review:
I checked this out from the South Lake Tahoe Public Library because I am under the impression that this is women’s fiction, which is one of the categories of reads for the BL Summer Reading Program. Why am I under this impression? Because Jennifer Weiner eloquently and unapologetically says it is. And she should know, because she wrote it. Plus, she went to Princeton, and I think that gives her a little added authority, don’t you? (You don’t? Well, maybe you have a point. By the time you’re in your thirties, your Ivy League credentials have aged into irrelevance. And then all that matters is whether you can write a book that made me cry.)
Book made me laugh: Yes. Jennifer Weiner is funny. No question.
Book made me cry: It did! It did! I gave up all critical distance and gave myself completely up to the story, which is basically the tale of two sisters — one sensible and a size 14 (would that be Sense?) and one dyslexic and hot as hell (would that be Sensibility?) One hurts the other. Guess who? (Yes that would be sensibility who does the hurting.) They wear the same size shoes (that would be the title). One is a lawyer (that would be Sense.) They must learn to get along, and they must also come to terms with their mother’s death early in their lives and the horrible fall out from that death. It is a really fine plot.
Did I cringe at the writing?: No. Jennifer Weiner is a good writer. She is clear and clever and a good plotter. Whatever this is, it is not trash.
Did I learn something new about myself, about life, about people, about how fiction is put together? No, I did not.
Did I expect to learn something new about myself, about life, about people, about how fiction is put together? Not really. Why must every book do this? Jennifer Weiner did not set out to do this, so why should she be penalized for not accomplishing something she never even suggested she was going to do?
Is this a bad book? No. As I mentioned, I enjoyed it. I like crying at stories when I know that everything is going to work out. It’s like a movie where you know exactly what’s going to happen but the acting is good, the locations are lovely, the dialogue is sharp — you know you’re in good hands.
Is it a great book? No. Sense and Sensibility is a great book. It is very difficult to write a great book and really I very much doubt a great one has yet been written this century.
Other books like this: Well, I believe I have mentioned Sense and Sensibility which is also the story of two sisters who have to learn to love properly. They do, however, get along through most of the book. Another book this reminds me of is Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weismanns of Westport, which I vaguely remember is modeled after Sense and Sensibility, although honestly I wouldn’t have realized that if the book jacket didn’t mention it.
Here is what I learned when I made the BlogLily Summer Reading Program Booklet Prototype.
1. I will have to call the finished reading program book a prototype because otherwise the people who’ve signed up for the Summer Reading Program will think they’re getting the above-captioned, messy-looking item.
2. The Prototype has a lot of staple holes in it but no actual staples. That is because I cannot figure out which direction things should go in until I staple them and realize that, in fact, I have stapled the entire booklet closed and no one will be able to use it. Then I have to remove the staples and start again. Note: The Actual Booklets will be made using rubber cement.
3. There is something out there that allows you to fold cardstock without making the folded arts & crafts item look like someone stepped on it. I think it is called a bone folder, which is a weird name, when you think about it.
4. I could have made ten different categories, but I have always been so relieved to realize that something I thought had ten parts actually had eight, so I went with it to increase the Summer Reading joy. Also, I miscounted.
5. I like those accordion-style books and have never actually had one, so I made one for the Program Booklet. But because I wasn’t quite sure how to make it fold out properly or where to begin the numbering there was a lot of stapling and unstapling going on (see above-captioned photograph).
6. It is better to use a fine point sharpie on flimsy paper than a thick one. This is not a package you are sending back to Amazon.
7. There are an infinite number of reading categories — I picked eight of them out of a hat. Well, not actually a hat, more out of thin air.
8. Everyone who signed up for the Summer Reading Swag Program will have to send me a mailing address. Dorothy, The Bookseller’s Daughter, has reminded me that it would be helpful to know where you should send your mailing address: to firstname.lastname@example.org
9. What is a reading program without a couple of rules, so you will feel that you have accomplished something? I will have to pick some rules out of thin air. This has been known to fall flat, but I’m doing it anyway.
You will need to read eight books. In eight categories. You will earn 10 points just for performing the basic activity of writing down the name of the book in your Program Booklet. There are bonus points for doing more in each category, and although they are basically the same from category to category, I’m going to write them down, so there is no confusion.
1. A summer read from ten years ago. Bonus Points if you re-read (or read it, if you never did get to it): 10. Bonus Points if you blog about it or otherwise write about it: 10. (I love bonus points. One of our family mottos is “always do the extra credit.) Bonus points if you identify in your booklet or on your blog at least one other book that is like this one. Bonus points if you check it out from the library: 10
2. A book your librarian recommends. What is a summer reading program that does not involve a trip to the library? Go ask your librarian to recommend a book. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it the conventional way (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points).
3. Genre Fiction. Pick a book in your favorite genre. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it on paper (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points), answer the question: is there any beautifully written genre fiction?
4. Literary Fiction. Figure out what that is and then pick one. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it on paper (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points).
5. Genre Fiction. It is summer. Repeat Number 3, above. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it on paper (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points).
6. Women’s Fiction. Is there such a thing? I am interested in this question. You might not be. If you aren’t, just pick any book you want to pick. But make sure it’s written by a woman, unless you want to pick one that’s written by a man, which is fine by me. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it on paper (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points).
7. Men’s Fiction. Why are there no books identified as “men’s fiction”? Or are there? Pick one. Should it be written by a man or a woman? It’s up to you. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it on paper (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points).
8. Whatever You Want. Read it (10 bonus points), blog or write about it on paper (10 bonus points), check it out from the library (10 bonus points), name a book that’s like it (10 bonus points). If you don’t like any of the 1-7 categories above, then just do 8.
Prizes? Of course.
Bookmarks? One will be included in your packet, which will contain a Spiffed up Version of the Prototype, and a writing instrument.
Counting Points: You will have to do that. I know you would never cheat. Because you do not know the prizes. There could be cars, there could be boomerangs, there could be books, there could be candy. Who knows? (I don’t know, is the real answer.)
I love everything about library summer reading programs, but the thing I love the most is the swag: the little sheet they give you so you can fill in the names of the books you’ve read. The stickers you stick on the little sheet as evidence that you’ve finished a book. The bookmarks! The buttons!! And the prizes: the ticket to an A’s game, your very own paperback book.
Which brings me to my favorite summer reading prize of all time, the one they’re giving out at the Berkeley Public Library this summer: a boomerang. No. Really? I love that.
The boomerang is the perfect symbol for what happens when you become an enthusiastic reader. You read that book and your first reaction is almost always to tell someone else about it. And before you know it, they’re telling you about the book they just read that you’ll like too. That’s about the path of a boomerang, isn’t it?
Actually, around here the first reaction to reading a good book is to dress up like your favorite character and go around sword fighting people. Or to immediately ask, “are there any more like this?” That last question is my favorite reading question of all time. You can do this on Amazon, of course, but it’s a lot of fun to see if you can come up with “more like this.”
I’m pretty sure I have a point here. Yes, I do. I’m going to have a BlogLily Summer Reading Program because I don’t see why kids should have all the fun. It will involve downloadable swag, so you too can follow along. You might have to supply your own stickers. In a pinch, you can just draw something. And yes, there will be prizes.
Stay tuned. I’m not an artist. But I figure I can make a decent summer reading sheet thing. I’ll give you the sheet, but you have to write down your books. Most importantly, you have to do that “more like this” recommendation. You don’t, however, have to give them boomerang ratings. Unless you want to. And even if no one signs up, because, you know, kids these days are too busy playing on their i-things to fill out the reading program sheets, I will still be doing this.
In advance of the official roll out of the BlogLily Summer Reading Program, I am going to report on my very first summer reading book. I’m well on my way to winning that boomerang.
Before it was cancelled because it was probably not a great show, the bloglily household spent many pleasurable Tuesday evenings watching a show called The Event. It was about aliens and humans, and whether they could live together when there were a lot of aliens and the humans were taking up all the room. What I loved most about this show was the hero. He was an unlikely hero — a good looking young guy of about 30, with what looked like excellent computer skills and a fine future in IT. But then, oh, but then! His life is turned upside down and suddenly he is on the run from pretty much everybody. And you know what? He acquits himself beautifully, despite the fact that he was really headed for a tech career. Turns out, he’s strong and fast and totally driven. Plus, it comes in handy to know how to hack into the CIA’s computers. Plus the white house’s.
That’s what the hero of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms is like. He’s an unassuming enough scientist who knows a lot about clouds. And then, and then — he witnesses a murder, gets blamed for it and all of a sudden, he’s sleeping on the ground and growing a heavy beard. That he acquits himself well gives nothing away. The pleasure is in reading how he does it. What could be a more perfect summer book than that? It is not, for example, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Quite possibly, and objectively Tess is a better book than Ordinary Thunderstorms, but, if what you’re after is a hero who’s good on the run, Tess is not your woman. .
Only criticism: Actually, not a criticism. More a thought. It’s awfully hard sometimes to pick a really good villain. But pharma? Somehow that’s just not scary enough.
Are there more like this? Well, there’s a great Harrison Ford movie called The Fugitive that you might enjoy. Doctor on the run. I believe Tommy Lee Jones is chasing him.
Summer’s arrived here at the bloglily household. There is general happiness, and a movement spearheaded by the non-parents to suspend all routines, including the one that gets everyone into bed before the sun rises. So far the adolescents and the ten year old who’s actually 40 are winning that one.
If you’re surly enough, and I’ll admit that this describes my general demeanor about half the time, you might trudge through summer without acknowledging its wonderfulness because you, after all, don’t get to suspend all routines. But at least you get to read summer books, which is way, way better than going to see summer movies. Summer books, at their best, leave you satisfied. Summer movies, even at their best, make you feel like you’ve eaten at McDonalds, and although maybe it was okay at the time, you really wish you hadn’t.
So. Summer books — for me — mean spy books. I love spy books. I like the whole noirish atmosphere of a good spy book. I love the lone operative, the hero who behaves well, but somehow all the odds are against him. (Why can’t I think of any spy books where there’s a decent woman spy?) A couple of days ago I spent the whole day reading, which meant that we had frozen costco lasagne for dinner (here in Berkeley, that’s when they send the child protective services to your house). What kept me from whipping up an organic, vegetable-filled dinner was Alan Furst.
I really like Alan Furst’s books. They’re all set in dark, rainy corners of Europe, on the eve of the second world war. There aren’t any Americans in these books, or hardly any. The most recent one is called Spies of the Balkans. I will not tell you what happens in it because you could probably guess. Okay, I’ll tell you some things. Is there a spy who’s a Greek police officer, who’s ethical, but not above trickery when it’s necessary to protect the innocent? Check. The occasional furling and unfurling of an umbrella because it’s always raining in the countries Hitler’s about to invade? Check. Sex? Check. Daring rescues? Check. A general atmosphere of a world going to hell, during which tremendous acts of courage occur? Check.
Like I said, I read the whole thing in one day. I never do that. Happy Summer!