Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ballet Books from Britain: Estoril's Entry

Estoril, Jean [Allan, Mabel]. Ballet for Drina. Macdonald, 1987.

Alas, poor Drina: that which she desires most, she is forbidden to attempt . . . and this, plus her machinations into the general realm of working around her guardian's rules, make up nearly the entire story told in Ballet for Drina.

Drina loves to dance, and longs to dance, but somehow her grandmother (and guardian) always seems to find reasons to keep her from having proper lessons. Some of this changes when Drina changes school and meets a friend named Jenny, who takes ballet lessons although she would rather be learning to farm. Persuasions occur, and lessons are allowed, and a heartwarming friendship begins; the story, though simple, is pleasing, and little girls who love ballet are sure to enjoy this book (and probably its sequels) as well. Of course, there are also the necessary pangs and heartbreaks, and permissions granted become restrictions along the way, but the plot at heart is simple (and, it is to be confessed, entirely predictable from the very first chapters of the novel). Still, there is much to enjoy here for the youthful balletomane, and it would make an excellent second series for young readers who have finished Streatfield and are looking for another collection of British ballet books with which to fuel their imaginations.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Kitchen: Cooking up a Character Study or Two

Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchen. Washington Sqaure, 1994.

Kitchen is a simple book, and one with a plot so casually structured as to provide not so much a story as a character study, and one that is remarkably difficult to wrap into a summary. It begins with a description of the main character's love for kitchens and the stories they tell, and gradually meanders into a description of the several significant events of her young life. Early in the book, protagonist Mikage's grandmother dies, and she is shortly invited to move in with her acquaintance Yuichi and his "mother" (formerly his father) who works in the sex industry. Eventually this arrangement goes sour, but through all the many struggles that she faces as she strives to make a new life for herself in the wake of her grandmother's death, Mikage remains resilient.

This wasn't my favourite novel, but I appreciated the effort that went into making the character likeable and engaging. Mikage isn't really my type of character, and this isn't my favourite type of novel, but nevertheless I found the book intellectually interesting. There are scenes of great charm, and a great deal of passion, and the novel is well written; I simply didn't find it compelling. Yet the character sketch is careful and the book has been written far more precisely than have many novels of our era; I must praise it, if only for its structure. In addition, this book has the remarkable merit of brevity: it provides an afternoon of stimulating intellectual exercise while still permitting an evening of reckless abandon in murder mysteries and other fictitious frivolities. It was my favourite book of the month, but, alas, only because the pickings were otherwise quite slim.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

'Once upon a Day' took too many hours of my life to read

Tucker, Lisa. Once Upon a Day. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Once upon a Day is a modern-day coming-of-age story intertwined with a old-Hollywood romance, as author Lisa Tucker blends the story of sheltered Dorothea, out in the world for the first time in memory, with the failed romance of her parents, once famous stars now nearly forgotten.

The early pages of the book move slowly; Dorothea leaves home for the first time in search of her brother, and her naivete as she figures out bus travel (daunting for anyone), hires a taxi, and buys her first modern clothes seems played for laughs. Dorothea's quick transition from innocent daughter to worldly-wise seductress is implausible, although her dreams and the vague memories she and her brother are able to recall serve as the link to a more compelling story, that of her parents' courtship and increasingly broken marriage. At the beginning of the novel, Tucker hints at a great tragedy, and the hints and intimations grow stronger as Dorothea, her brother Jimmy, and a helpful cabdriver (who becomes much more) attempt to solve the mystery. By the end of the book, Dorothea seems perfectly adapted to everyday life in modern America, and the story of her parents' romance is both heartbreaking and frustrating for its undertones of manipulation shrouded in the guise of love.

While not the greatest book I've read, this novel does manage to balance the frivolous silliness of novelty with the slow ache of unfulfilled passion, and by the end of the story I was able to sympathise with a few of the characters. Overall, however, this is a book that encourages listless awareness rather than genuine involvement with the characters and their stories, and thus, while I look forward to seeing what other tricks Tucker has up her novelist's sleeve, I'm happy to wait a while for my next encounter with her work.