Friday, January 25, 2008

Booking through Whatever Day This Is

This week's question, from Booking Through Thursday:

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

I like this one a lot, because most of my childhood favorites resonate with no one else but me, then or now. Growing up, my favorite books were Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (well-known but not terribly hot in my elementary school); L.M Montgomery's The Blue Castle, which may not have even been available in the United States; and several books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

In fourth grade, we had to pick one of our favorite authors and write a letter to him or her. I picked Zilpha Keatley Snyder. My teacher had never heard of her, but I was incredibly honored when she wrote back. I got a pre-printed letter with a photo of her and what we would now call a FAQ, but she wrote me a note addressing a question about how a dowsing rod worked, and even drew me a picture! Pretty cool.

From an adult perspective, I would say that the books I liked the best by her (The Egypt Game,The Changeling, and The Headless Cupid) were about older children who played elaborate games and dealt with the real world of complicated friendships, family issues, and just plain growing up through these games. As a kid, though, these books were no less than blueprints. The characters in all of those books, to me, had gotten close to that something else that I was sure was waiting for me, perhaps just through an old wardrobe or maybe even through a picture I drew myself on the sidewalk. I read The Changeling over and over, I tried to become a witch one summer like the people in The Headless Cupid so that I could commune with spirits, and I played The Egypt Game for a little while too.

But for some reason, no one else did. Her books didn't catch on, and I wonder if they're still read, or if she's still writing. I haven't read them in years, but they'll always have a special place in my heart.


As a public service to my non-Christian readers, I should warn you that Doesn't She Look Natural? by Angela Hunt is a Christian novel. If your library (like mine) placed the bar code over the God-related blurb on the back cover, you may have missed this.

I took a closer look at the publisher, the summary and the author bio when I'd hit about page 50 and noted the frequent mentions of God, prayer and Jesus making everything all right. I was willing to keep going for several reasons. I liked the book well enough by that point. I liked the concept of a woman inheriting a funeral home and doing her best Tim Gunn ("make it work!") in the face of overwhelming odds. The book had gotten good press, seemed to have some interesting characters and also seemed to be steering clear of the stuff I dislike about organized religion.

Until the middle of chapter 14. The main character, Jen, has intended to fix up this funeral home in Mt. Dora and sell it, but the home's elderly caretaker has convinced her to let him continue operating it while the work goes on. In this chapter, they've picked up their first "DB" as Grissom and Catherine would say (dead body to you non-CSI fans) and Jen gets the living shit scared out of her by the hairdresser. Unaware of her presence in the house, he goes up to the living quarters for a coffee. Now, Jen is justifiably frightened at finding a strange man in her kitchen. Yet, after the caretaker steps in, shoos the hairdresser back to his day job and settles everyone down, Jen's fear continues.

Why? What could be so horrible about this male hairdresser? Have you guessed it yet? She is afraid that Hairdresser Ryan might be one of those dreaded homosexuals -- and she has two easy converts in her impressionable young sons. And the caretaker gently explains to her that although Hairdresser Ryan would, in fact, love to get down and dirty with another man, he lives a pure and chaste life in a rooming house, alone, because that's clearly the way God wants it.

Yeah, seriously. If you don't believe me, check this book out yourself. I started to wonder about how the rest of the book would go. Jen's mother had been constantly chastising her about working too much and not spending enough time with her sons -- was she somehow going to give up working to be a stay-at-home single mom of some sort? Both she and her ex-husband had worked for Senators, and she'd railed about how unfair it was that she had to give up her job when they got divorced. But was that the "before" Jen? Was she going to see how much better it was in Mt. Dora, away from the sinful city and all its worldly distractions, where women are women and gay men are doomed to keep it in their pants for their entire lives?

I don't know. And maybe, by ripping out my bookmark, I'm being just as close-minded as those who believe Hairdresser Ryan made the proper life choice. But the book clearly wants you to sympathize with Jen, to root for her and to enjoy whatever transformation she'll undergo in the course of this book. And she's not so interesting that I could do that anyway, knowing how bigoted she is.

In a larger sense, I wonder why Christians need Christian fiction. They seem to be virtually the only religion that does that (at least in the United States). There are lots of novels about Judaism, but they're more cultural than religious. Why do no other religions try to convert people through fiction? I have some blogger friends who are atheists, and have seen frequent talk on their blogs about how there should be a more defined atheist movement in this country, to help offset the right-wing Christians who are running America into the ground. Maybe this is their golden opportunity: atheist fiction!