Sunday, October 6, 2013

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

Like many, I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, so it's almost a disappointment that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is such a slim book. The length doesn't diminish the novel in any way--it's the perfect length for the story it wants to tell--but I wanted the pleasure of reading for a longer period of time.

Ocean is a bit unusual because it's a book for adults with a child protagonist. What makes it really shine, though, is the relationship it posits between its adult readers and the seven-year-old narrator. For we don't read the book thinking, "Ah, yes, those silly fears of children!" Rather, we read the book and fully inhabit and understand the very real terror of being a child, a person without physical or social power to change his surroundings.

The unnamed narrator recounts his childhood and relationship with Lettie Hempstock, an usual girl at the end of the lane. Lettie tries to control a creature from another world, but a portion of the creature is left in the narrator, which brings evil into his home.

The book's main message seems to be that, to children, adults are every bit as scary and monstrous as actual monsters. After all, adults make and enforce the rules, regardless of the logic, desires, or needs of children. When the creature enters the narrator's home in the form of the wily babysitter Ursula Monkton, the narrator knows that his parents won't buy his protests that she's evil or out to harm him. The rules that say adults are smarter, that adults are civil, and that adults are rational will always prevail. As a reader, we're terrified for the protagonist as he attempts to escape because we understand this logic and his powerlessness.

Gaiman also blurs the line between the evil of Monkton and the "evil"--or at least wrong--of adults. Monkton has power over the narrator's father; he has an affair with her and he attempts to drown the narrator after he insults Monkton. But, it's never clear how much of the father's actions are a result of supernatural mind control and how much are the natural selfishness and anger of the father. The lack of clarity--and the implication that adults can be terrible without a villain forcing them--makes the story all the more chilling.

The magical Hempstock family is made perfectly normal within the novel, even though the novel exists in a solidly real world and even though the family is anything but typical. The protagonist's inherent trust in them--because they are calm and assured--also serves to reinforce the precarious nature of children, who are dependent upon the solidity of adults to shape their lives.

Ocean is certainly an adult book, with terror and subject matter inappropriate for children who share the protagonist's age. Yet it's a perfect book for adults, a modern horror fantasy with all the Gaiman details one would expect.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker

Aah! Since I began this blog in January 2009, this is the first time a month has gone by without a single post! I suppose nothing lasts--at least in its same form--forever. I actually did finish The Golem and the Jinni in September, so I didn't go a month without reading...but I did go a month without posting.

I'm back at school, teaching two new classes, and that takes a huge chunk of my time. I'm teaching AP Language for the first time, and it scares me. I so desperately want my students to do well--they're good kids and they're talented--and I'm constantly worrying I'm not preparing them sufficiently. Come May I'll have a "grade" of how well I've done for the first time. I don't want to fail.

I've also taken up the position of drama coordinator at my school. I don't direct the plays, but I am at every rehearsal every day. The phrase "herding cats" has only really come true for me for the first time with high school drama. It's exhausting, even though I'm mostly an observer.

I'm still attempting to work out four times a week, something I've done the past year. I went once this past week.

C'est la vie. Time for books.

The Golem and the Jinni was a solid book for me. Entertaining plot and characters, plenty enjoyable, but without that spark of style to the writing that makes it memorable.

Wecker brings together two myths--the Jewish golem and the middle-Eastern jinni--in early 20th century New York. The blending of three cultures (Jewish, Syrian, and American) only works because golem Chava and jinni Ahmad are so similar--beings of great power constrained by the ordinariness of human life. They're connected in another important way, though it would be spoiling the novel to say in what manner. Wecker does a good job of conveying their otherness: Chava's literal inability to relax or Ahmad's perpetual claustrophobia.

The best parts of the book involve Chava and Ahmad's developing relationship, but there are great moments with their human friends, from the rabbi who takes in Chava to the tinsmith who teaches Ahmad his trade.

The book is somewhat lengthy and drags a bit in the middle before coming to a roaring conclusion. There aren't any great descriptions or lyrical prose, but it's a good, character-driven light fantasy worthy of a read.