Monday, October 30, 2006

Judge a book by its cover

Speaking of culinary memoirs, my introduction to the genre were these two books by Colette Rossant. Ah! Cairo in the 1930's and Paris in the 1940's - it just doesn't get more exciting. But besides the story, which is fascinating I fell completely in love with these book covers. I think they are my all time favorites. The photographer is Jeff Cottenden and in his site you can see other book covers he has done as well as examples of his work. Beautiful - serene, melancholy and simultaneously tense, but in a comforting way.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

In the NY Times Books section you can read the first chapter of Madhur Jaffrey's memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees. I read it in the beginning of 2006 and found it wonderful, but I might be biased since I love women's memoirs with a culinary inclination. The hardcover edition has a beautiful cover and photographs inside.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld and The Moth Diaries - Rachel Klein

Ever since reading my first boarding school books when I was about ten, a collection named Susana by a German author whose name I forget, I’ve dreamt of attending one of these dreaded institutions.

Works that take place in boarding schools are usually presented, at least partly, as ominous: this is the place where you get sent if your parents are divorcing (Susana), when your father has committed suicide (The Moth Diaries), or where you commit yourself by realizing that a greater sacrifice is required if you hope to escape the dreadful mediocrity and low middle class humdrum of your foreseeable future (Prep, where the rich girls have their own coded acronym for low middle class- LMC). To me, however, boarding school seemed wonderful. These schools are usually located in beautiful bucolic regions, among rolling hills, or snow-capped mountains, where you might have a lake or a river for water sports, or at the very least a whole bunch of trees and plants. I always longed to live close to nature, having grown up in a very old urban neighborhood of Lisbon, and these kids seemed like lucky bastards to me: they sailed, they played tennis, whenever they went nature was around them (if I recall correctly, Susana’s school even had an optional class on horticulture!). My second favorite thing was the academic mood palpable in these old edifices - because whether or not the reality supports it, the image the institution tries to put across is that excellence in education is their absolute priority - because school was where I felt most comfortable at that age. The only down side to attending a boarding school was that they made you share a bedroom – but the wily Susana also taught me that if you raise enough hell, they’ll probably give you a single.

In any case, normal happy boys and girls probably attend such schools, but one thing is for sure: their days are so gloriously filled with classes, sports, clubs and friends, that they never seem inclined to take to the confessional required for a good diary read, which is the normal form for boarding school books. Just like Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good as it Gets”, explains to Helen Hunt’s, not everyone has a miserable life – “some have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that's their story. Good times, noodle salad”. The same can be said for adolescence: only it’s never the cheery, sporty, carefree and pretty girl whose daily entries we get to read, but the odd one out, the clumsy, too smart or not smart enough, too brooding for her own damn good. But maybe that is missing the point with such coming of age stories, because the reason they are compelling is first and foremost their setting – a confined space for all the characters to bump into each other. Be it an island, a prison, a monastery or a school, the real or perceived state of imprisonment automatically takes the plot tension a notch up. But the age is equally important. In a boarding school not only do you have dozens of characters forced to live with each other every day of the week, you also have them in, possibly, the most turbulent, confusing and intense stage of their lives.
Boys can be the main characters in such school dramas to be sure, but I have to confess that the quintessential of these works for me, has to be about girls. Whatever might be argued, boys simply cannot “do” intense as good as their female counterparts. Their ability to become obsessed, paranoid, or simply sad can never offer the range and mileage of a teenage girl. And as illustrations to the case in point I give you Todd and Neil, the iconographic schoolboys of 1989’s Dead Poets Society, which in their attempt to play sensitive and deep (Hawke’s Todd is so shy he can barely bring himself to speak, and Leonard’s Neil is so distraught by his father’s interdiction of the dramatic arts that he shoots himself in the head) become utterly feminine. When boys behave like boys, they resemble characters such as Tobias Wolff’s in Old School – their preoccupations and anxieties lie with literature not with intimate relationships. When the narrator is a girl, it doesn’t really matter if the school accepts boys (Ault in Prep does; Brangwyn in The Moth Diaries does not) because the focus is always on the feminine universe and although boys might the object of fantasies, it is, even in this case, the way in which the female student body regards the boy (is he popular? How many other girls have crushes on him? What does your best friend think about him? And the popular girls?) which defines him.

The girls in boarding school drama present an environment of undistilled femininity at its most fresh and stultifying, an environment in which the whole day is passed in breathing distance of dozens of other similarly recent women. The unnamed character in Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries, explains why she so often turns to a book by Collete, whose setting is also a boarding school: "She knows what it’s like to be shut up in a place like this, where all your emotions are focused on the girls around you, where you dream of a boyfriend but only feel comfortable with your arm around another girls waist".

Similarly, Lee Fiora, the main character in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, remembers her best friend from Ault: "Years later, I heard a minister at a wedding describe marriage as cutting sorrow in half and doubling joy, and what I thought of was not the guy I was seeing then, nor even of some perfect, imaginary husband I might meet later; I thought immediately of Martha".

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld have a great deal in common, as might be expected from two fictionalized diaries of similar aged girls, both experiencing boarding school life. And even though Klein’s book takes place in 1971, and Prep in the nineties, they both share an out of time atmosphere. In The Moth Diaries the narrator explains, “Nothing existed outside ourselves and school. For us the world of politics, social revolution, the war in Vietnam never happened.” In fact, the only clues as to the period setting of the story, are given quite late in the action, with the purchase of Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman, and a François Truffaut movie. The feel in Prep is surprisingly similar, maybe because these kids “still listened to music from the sixties and seventies”. The isolation is such an important factor, and yet it’s almost impossible to determine whether it’s self-inflicted or simply endured, maybe even encouraged “I guess e-mail existed when I was at Ault, but I had never heard of it”. It makes sense. If one message comes across clearly from these books is that it is virtually impossible to explain to an outsider what it’s like at boarding school. Kind of like explaining to your dad what it’s like being a teenage girl. Good luck with that e-mail.

In the end, The Brangwyn Echoes and The Ault Quarterly, the newsletters of the respective schools, figure prominently in both work’s final lines. Sittenfeld’s and Klein’s characters might have had a hard time (a bit of an understatement as far as The Moth Diaries main character is concerned) but they can’t stop themselves from looking at the pictures of their old classmates, and although it is not a carefree experience, they seem to feel obligated to keep in check the lives of their colleagues – somehow the photos of balding jocks and strings of pearls in aged faces reassure them that they were somewhere during their teen years and not just absent from their family homes. Both agree that nothing compares to their experiences at these schools and both have a difficult time characterizing their own feelings “my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was in its energy, not that different from happiness” Lee reflects.

Lee is from the Midwest and her application for a scholarship at Ault, in Massachusetts, comes after the realization that South Bend, Indiana, and her mattress seller dad, homemaker mom and two brothers offer little in the glamour she feels even at 13 her life should have. She applies to Ault much in the way girls her age send their photos to model contests; it’s a nice dream but she doesn’t really believe she’ll be selected. When she is, she feels, recognizing her colleagues from the pictures in the catalog like what “it might be to see a celebrity”. What we get to witness are the four years in which Lee tries, more than get on the Ivy League ticket, to fit in among the more privileged students – well, it’s also a kind of education.

We catch up with the unnamed narrator of The Moth Diaries later – she quickly fills us in on the circumstances of her arrival at Brangwyn, her father’s suicide and her mother’s inability to overcome grief -, she is 16 and tells us she has friends, her integration seems completed. Bu in fact, what we are invited to witness in Rachel Klein’s book is the undoing of a normal teenager’s universe, a veritable gothic spiral of paranoia.

There is a subtle darkness suggested on the first pages that builds to a syrupy thickness that will envelop the reader to the point of suffocation in the end, even though this school is portrayed as very progressive: maybe it was the sixties that made it okay for students to have a cigarette break after dinner.

Klein is upfront with the horror overtones her story is about to take – the girl’s literature elective is, after all, called Beyond Belief: Writers of the Supernatural and The Age of Abstraction, and we even have access to the reading list (even though it was Robert W. Chambers not E. K. Chambers who wrote The King in Yellow). The Moth Diaries plays with the uncertainty we must always feel with a diary, or indeed, any first person narrator: if our only glimpse of this world is through a character’s eyes, how sure can we be of the impressions? Who is to say that our guide is neither a liar or mad? In The Moth Diaries all bets are off. Not even the middle-aged narrator who looks back on the written pages offers any answers: "I have always been intrigued by the journals that girls keep. They are like dollhouses. Once you look inside them, the rest of the world seems very far away, even unbelievable".
In Brangwyn the boarders are literary fiends: Dora can quote Nietzsche (even though that doesn’t exactly win her any popularity points) and our narrator takes up reading Proust as a completely normal hobby for a sixteen-year-old, and then is annoyed when she finds out one of the others has finished A La Recherche du temps perdu, some years before. The story revolves around a new girl, Ernessa Bloch, and the way in which she seemingly attracts girls into her orbit in order to change them. The girl who interest Ernessa the most, is Lucy, the narrator’s best friend, hence her own obsession in tracking the new girl’s movements. Lucy is boring but beautiful, just as best friends are supposed to be and fickle with her affections in a way common among teenagers – is she being manipulated by a smarter girl, or is she growing up, outgrowing our narrator? And is Ernessa simply a girl apt at conquering everyone’s attention or something altogether more dangerous? The Moth Diaries invites us in, but also it also compels the reader to make some judgments of which the most important: Is the girl writer sane or psychotic? Can be answered either way. In the end you end up questioning your own beliefs, about locked up teenagers, more than in the supernatural, which seems an accomplishment for a gothic story.

Klein controls the rhythm, the ebb and flow, of the daily entries, expertly. She paints a believable picture because she doesn’t forget nuances: not all the characters need to appear with the same strength, not everything is equally important, but it still needs to be there; Klein controls the intensity of her paintbrushes, in words, plot and characters so that nothing feels overdone, or underestimated. The Moth Diaries is hypnotic and re-readable something of a rare combination.

Prep is, on the whole, a less cohesive book. It starts out by suggesting a series of paths that are never fully explored, and the chapters, specially the first ones, have the tone of short stories, each with its moral lesson at the end. The way Sittenfeld keeps intruding as a older Lee to give us little jumps ahead in the narrative and also to seemingly reflect or illuminate certain episodes, is a less than elegant device, it draws attention from the believable Lee to a less likeable nosey parker, who keeps tugging the reader away from the nice rhythm of the story wanting to explain things, and instead being vaguely irritating, as when in chapter seven, certain facts which only happen in graduation (chapter eight) are disclosed, leaving the reader in the end with the feeling of having been short-changed in the need for a real conclusion. There are also some loose ends which add to this feeling: Gates Medkowski, a senior which appears only in the first two chapters, apparently to provide a device for Lee to doubt her own sexual orientation, is then quickly discarded (as are Lee’s doubts), as if Sittenfeld were cautious of using a more important character to play out these feelings, such as room-mate Martha. The same goes for Little Washington and Conchita, who make similarly intense appearances just to quickly fade from the story, as if the author was obeying some strange novelistic rule about ethnic characters. It is almost as if Little, Conchita, Dede (the Jewish character “the kind of Jew you couldn’t hide”), Rufina, Maria and Darden, “the cool black guy”, are offered in part as an excuse for Lee’s choices – her best friend (preferred over Conchita in an episode which for teenage girls can be described as nothing short of treason) is a white, rich, New England girl, Martha, and her crush the blond basketball team star, Cross Sugarman. Not much by way of diversity. The bigger problem is that most characters don’t seem to have an inner life – like puppets they move only when Lee looks at them – with the exception of Sin-Jun, who comes slowly into her own throughout the book, and Cross, alas, only in the last pages. The names of characters are a dime a dozen and most of them are wonderful: Aspeth, Gates, Little, Horton, Hunter and my absolute favorite: “Maisie Vilayphonh, a half-Finnish, half-Laotian junior whose parents were rumored to be spies”, who makes an appearance, sadly, only in name, on the list of students expelled from Ault, who by the way, seem each and everyone of them more interesting than the insipid Martha Porter, or even Lee herself.

Despite this fact Prep is an accomplished novel in some ways – it creates a believable and fascinating scenario, and the reader does actually feel as if taking a peep at a privileged universe most of us don’t get to experience, but still feel curious about. Lee Fiora is a believable character, and though she may not be likeable, this stems at least partly from the fact that she reminds us of times we were also less than kind to the fat or unpopular girl who wanted to be our friend, to the younger boy who had a crush on us, to our confused parents. She makes us uncomfortable because of that one time we were jealous of a best friend’s success or made our mother cry and that is an achievement. Rachel Klein puts it best in her narrator’s final words “That girl was self-absorbed, but she was also excruciatingly alive”.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

When it comes to The Year of Magical Thinking, I believe its appreciation will turn out to be deeply subjective. It comes down to this: either you have experienced the death of someone very close to you or you haven’t – and it will probably be hard to imagine how the other half is feeling about this personal memoir.

I came to this conclusion when I tried to imagine what I might have thought about Didion’s book had my father not died when I was eighteen and drew a blank. Maybe it would still be moving, but I know it wouldn’t ring true – I wouldn’t be able to recognize so many of the strange thoughts that went through her head after the death of her husband, and to feel a bond over things I never shared with anyone.

Some reviewers seemed offended at the lack of journalistic tone: “ I’d like to read about Ms Didion’s marriage, but I’d like her to write about it as a reporter, not as a mourner” said Adam Begley in The New York Observer. Wow! That to me is like saying “I want you to tell me about the experience of becoming a mother, or falling in love, but leave everything emotional out of it”. That said I think it’s obvious that the whole grieving period presents special obstacles for individuals who have always been very rational, dependent on facts, and who maybe thought they had a pretty good handle on their feelings.

Joan Didion by professional (de) formation and character must have been such a person and you feel her throughout the book – with the quotes of medical, psychological and sociological books – trying to grapple her husband’s absence as if it were an intellectual problem, just to find that academia provides small comfort. She keeps repeating in her mind the events leading to the sudden death of John Gregory Dunne, and this provides the backbone of her book – in between there are variations, other memories of homes, conversations, travel, of their daughter (gravely ill before Dunne’s death, in a chain of events which would sound totally unrealistic in a work of fiction), but she always brings you back to that moment.

The names mentioned in the book also seemed to upset Begley and other readers who spoke of name-dropping (check out metacritic’s site) – which I must confess didn’t bother me much since I didn’t recognize any of them. I find it natural that her friends are other writers or newspaper editors – she’s been around since the sixties for godsake. Just like other readers I did, however, feel some jealousy of the L.A. homes or the constant Hawaii trips – still, I think you’d have to be a really bitter person to let that detract you from the main theme of the book. She doesn’t mention those places to look superior – if anything they are presented as superior because she enjoyed them with her husband, and the feeling I get is that they sound glamorous because she tinges all the memories of their common life with happiness. Even the tough moments every couple goes through are special, because he was there.

Some moments in life are lonely, but if The Year of Magical Thinking proves anything, is that they needn’t be – it turns out that even when we feel bereft, there are many others who are traveling the same winding path.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I was just thinking today about how easy it is to become obsessed with lists: booker short list, NY times bestsellers, most important, best books of...notable books...

And regarding awards I've often wondered what exactly goes into the decision.
As readers we often choose to read a book that has received some sort of award over one who has not. A lot goes into this decision: we like to read books that others recognize, and it's probably easier to discuss them with friends or acquaintances if they are well known, and last and definitely not least, books that win awards are usually cheaper because so many are sold.

Because all of this has been on my mind I really enjoyed reading Jason Cowley's "And the winner is?" article in The Guardian. Lionel Shriver's (who I have not read, and who until now I thought was a man, since Lionel is a male name in Portuguese) story was both sad and hopeful. I can't imagine writing eight books before finally being acknowledged as a "real" writer.

That said I hope to start reading Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss – The Booker winner for this year – soon. What convinced me over was not her winning though, but Pankaj Mishra’s review, in The New York Times.

Books I've read since April

April -
Mediterranean winter Robert D. Kaplan
Hotel Tiberias Sebastian Hope

May -
Memoirs d'Hadrien Marguerite Yourcenar
Penelopiad Margaret Atwood
Travels with my aunt Graham Greene
Lost kosmonaut Daniel Kalder
Homestead Rosina Lippi

June -
The last samurai Helen DeWitt
Disgrace J. M. Coetzee
jpod Douglas Coupland
Stevenson under the palms Alberto Manguel
In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz Michela Wrong

July -
The life & times of Michael K J. M. Coetzee
The man who ate everything Jeffrey Steingarten
Chasing the monsoon Alexander Frater
Tales from the torrid zone Alexander Frater
Drugs are nice Lisa Crystal Carver
My invented country Isabel Allende
The book of summer Tove Jansson

August -
The Conjuror's bird Martin Davies
The unplesantness at the Bellona Club Dorothy L. Sayers
Spix's Macaw Tony Juniper
A thousand country roads Robert James Waller
State of the Union Douglas Kennedy
Murder Must Advertise Dorothy L. Sayers
Suite Française Irene Nemirovsky

September -
On Beauty Zadie Smith
Little Face Sophie Hannah
Rue des Rosiers Jacques Lanzmann
On a retrouvé David Jacques Lanzmann
Summer Crossing Truman Capote
The Memory Keeper's Daughter Kim Edwards
Self-Help Lorrie Moore

October -
Prep Curtis Sittenfeld
The year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion
The Highest Tide Jim Lynch
Saving Fish from Drowning Amy Tan
Saturday Ian McEwan
To be continued...

Yes, I'll read just about anything..

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Saving Fish from Drowning - Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning is a masterpiece of irony – and yet another reminder that there is little as damaging to the world as American goodwill. If Edward Said’s Orientalism were ever transformed into a witty case study on the inability of East and West to understand each other, this might be it.

In Tan’s latest work we are invited to follow a party of twelve Americans off to the Orient on a “Following Buddha’s Footprints” itinerary which will take them to China and Burma. Only a few weeks before the scheduled departure, however, the group find themselves without their guide. Bibi Chen, a fifty something San Francisco socialite, whose philanthropy and love of the arts have turned her into a demi-celebrity in that arena, is found dead in her apartment. Escaped from China as a young girl just before the Revolution, she was the American’s gateway into understanding what they were about to see, their buffer against the inevitable faux-pas that follow over-confident tourists in exotic locations. But their loss is our gain. Instead of guiding her friends and acquaintances to the East, Bibi ends up guiding us, the readers, to the sometimes hilarious, sometimes-embarrassing behavior of westerners abroad. She is a wonderful tour leader and is further benefited by the incorporeal state she inhabits throughout the novel, which permits us to a look at rare locations inside the characters psyches. “It was not my fault” is the first sentence in the novel, one that instructs us to expect the worst from these people – and by the end no one can feel disappointed.

In casting her tour party, Tan reveals a deft hand in describing a certain type of American, in a way that is both instantly recognizable and most of the time, terribly funny. They are all well-off, some notoriously so, such as Harry, TV’s favorite dog trainer, his long time friend Moff, who has built a bamboo empire selling architectural plants to airports and luxury hotels, clients shared by Marlena who acquires art for the same locales. One, Wendy, is obscenely rich, an heiress who likes to rough it, and who agrees to the trip, encouraged by a former lover, who works for the NGO Free to Speak, and informs her on the practices of the brutal regime in Burma. Wyatt is her escort, and as his name suggests he’s a true blue Midwesterner, whose only concern is how to finance his (mostly) ecotourism. Dwight and Roxanne are a couple, both research investigators, and the difference in their academic careers is starting to strain their relationship (Roxanne is older, and more well-known and respected), although it doesn’t help that Dwight is exquisitely obnoxious. Vera is the venerable “elder” of the twelve, a fifty something African American intellectual, a soothing influence on the more histrionic characters. And Benny, who we might assume drew a cosmic short straw when he was invited to fill Bibi Chen’s walking shoes- the over sensitive gay, strives to please everyone and finds himself, of course, despised by most.

I left Heidi, Roxanne’s younger sister to the end, because I feel she is Tan’s most accomplished creation. In big breasted Heidi, the author gives us a taste of our own medicine, for she starts out as seemingly the silliest of the Americans, a hypochondriac, who read up on every possible health hazard, and never goes out without antibiotics, syringes, a space blanket, a head-lamp (and extra batteries), among other accoutrements. And she turns out to be the only one suitably prepared for the trip, the only one who believes her personality has room for improvement, and a calm presence during crisis.

They all have some things in common: mostly they prefer tracks and hikes to museums, or other cultural activities and all place importance on getting to know “real people” (as if there was such a thing as “false” people), and share the belief that “natives” are authentic, genuine, and therefore good and honest. Yes, there are also characters that show a superior openness of heart, honesty (even if it means being rude to the “natives”), and even a philosophical stance on the group’s difficulties. They are the children of the party, both on the verge of full blown adolescence and yet still displaying the more commendable side of humanity, Esmè, Marlena’s daughter and Rupert, Moff’s son.

To add to the irony, Tan soon shows us that not only do the Americans act based upon stereotypes of eastern culture, so do the Chinese and Burmese they encounter labor under similar misconceptions. In this passage Chen gives us a piece of Miss Rong’s, the Chinese guide’s mind:
She had heard that many Americans, especially those who travel to China, love Buddhism. She did not realize that the "Buddhism the Americans before her loved was Zen-like, a form of not thinking, not moving, and not-eating anything living, like buffaloes. This blank-minded Buddhism was practiced by well-to-do people in San Francisco and Marin County, who bought organic-buckwheat pillows for sitting on the floor, who paid experts to teach them to empty their minds of the noise of life".

Even an interest in the same forms of spirituality ends up losing East and West in the translation.
The main challenge with so many characters is to give them all equal time and opportunity to reveal themselves. Even though the book is 474 pages long I felt that Vera for one, and also Wyatt should have had more time on the narrative. Some reviewers seemed to think the disappearance takes place too late in the book (two thirds in to it), but I believe the book is to be read more for the character’s sake than the plot, and anyway a lot happens until you get there. If anything, the moment the Americans vanish, made by attention wander. I left the book aside for a couple of weeks, even though I had been devouring it until then.

Pascal Khoo Thwe called the oriental characters “wooden and stilted”, in his review for The Guardian, and initially I agreed. But having now finished the book I have a different opinion – Blackspot, Grease, Salt, Fishbones, Loot and Bootie- the Burmese we encounter don’t even have first names, but somehow it just doesn’t seem possible than Tan lost her abilities midway through the book. It is rather like she was trying to call attention to the interchangeability of these characters. They will change our main characters lives forever, their stories of persecution and torture are moving and yet, they will remain blurry and in some levels incomprehensible, until the end – kind of like the East to the West, and vice-versa.

The book poses a lot of questions such as the morality of tourism in countries with oppressive regimes, the lack of understanding between cultures, the role of the media in the construction of our world. But Tan she never provides any answers, probably because there aren’t any easy ones. As the narrator, Bibi, confesses:
"But when I was alive, I was not looking for tragedy. I was looking for bargains, the best places to eat, for pagodas that were not overrun with tourists, for the loveliest scenes to photograph".
For the time being, even if we don’t yet understand the language, maybe we should start by looking each other in the eyes.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Highest Tide - Jim Lynch

The Highest Tide was not an easy book to get through. It might sound as a strange assertion for a book so many reviewers raved about, but it’s actually meant as a compliment. Some books create images of such utterly magical universes, places that are simultaneously believable and incredible, it’s impossible not to get caught up in them, and left daydreaming in the middle of a paragraph. They have the allure of classic tales, but can happen in almost any time, and after you read them you can’t never quite get away from them. You’ll be sitting in your sofa, outside it will start raining and suddenly you’re in Mary Poppins’s London, or you’ll be staring at the sea and recall as if they were acquaintances, Sophie and her Grandmother, from Tove Jansson’s Summer Book. If you ever felt this way about a book and it’s characters, you should read Lynch’s book – Miles O’Malley is the kind of boy most of us wish we had been – even, or especially, if we’re girls.

Miles is just starting adolescence and already he’s feeling left behind: “ I came off as an innocent nine-year-old even though I was an increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac”. The time he should spend sleeping is however, put to better use than most adults who are also sleepless in Seattle (a crummy joke granted, but the story takes place in nearby Olympia, also in Washington state, so I really had to): this kid devours books on everything to do with the ocean and its life forms, and his muse, which he can quote at will, is Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, and also a trilogy on the ocean and the evolution of life. Miles wanders about in the bay, which is almost his front yard, in a kayak and also collects specimens at low tide to be sold to restaurants or aquarium owners of nearby towns. His incredible summer, a perfect coming of age season by the way, starts with a midnight ramble in which Miles comes face to face with a marine biologist’s jackpot: an honest to goodness giant squid taking its last breaths in a few feet of water.

Some rash statements to the local press, and Miles uncanny ability, at least it seems so to outsiders, to find unusual things in the shallows, combined with the midsummer slump on news stories, are all it takes to turn him into a local celebrity, followed by other teenagers who never gave him a second look, cult-members of a nearby compound and of course a whole bunch of reporters, slimy as sea cucumbers.

Of course the women who matter most in Miles O’Malley’s world remain elusive to the end: his mother who feels so trapped and suffocated by small-town life, she doesn’t realize how amazing her own son turned out; Florence, the elderly psychic who resists every attempt to curb her independence even if a neurological disease is making her increasingly dependent on a thirteen-year-old; and Angie Stegner, former babysitter and now full-time crush, part-time punk-rocker, whose age, bipolar disorder and random drug experimentation, make her so distant as if she were in the deepest, darkest depths of the sea.
One of the great things about Lynch’s book is that, even though it can be read by a twelve-year-old, it never gets sentimental or naïve: Florence keeps stacks of books on tantric sex, Angie doesn’t sugar coat her confessions of substance abuse or drunken threesomes, and Phelps, Miles main buddy, is never far from crassness. In fact, a refreshing factor in Lynch’s characters is that they talk with Miles, at least most of the time, as if he were an adult. When they don’t come out and say it, you only have to listen to know what goes on in their heads – as when he finds out about his mother’s frustration because she hasn’t been to “ a real city” since his birth.

The reason Jim Lynch’s book was hard going at times was that I started missing its characters almost since the beginning. If this were a TV series I would want nothing less than ten seasons. I want to know what happened to Judge Stegner, Angie, Miles’s parents, professor Kramer, Phelps and most of all I want to know how Miles grows up to become an adult.
Even if Jim Lynch doesn’t oblige, we can only hope his next book is just as spirited. That, and a modestly priced second-hand kayak.