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So after having reread all the Anastasia books, it occurred to me to wonder what Lois Lowry has been doing recently. I know she went through a phase of serious-and-relevant (and mostly pretty good) YA-- The Giver, Gathering Blue, etc.-- but that was a few years ago and I hadn't been paying attention since.

There was a new one in the children's section at the bookstore, so I sat down with it.

The Birthday Ball has illustrations by Jules Feiffer, and that is absolutely the last good thing I have to say about it, and I hope to God she gets over this and returns to her senses.

This is a self-conscious fairytale, the sort of thing whose genre model is Thurber's The 13 Clocks or, more closely, A.A. Milne's Once on a Time. Only it's terrible. There's the princess, and her family's ridiculous number of names, and the awful suitors she is trying to avoid, and the young schoolmaster she is obviously going to marry after the requisite rounds of mistaken identity etc. etc., but the thing is, Lowry clearly delineates a world in which every single member of the aristocracy is repulsive, autocratic, dictatorial, and stark raving bonkers but forgets to make the princess the exception. This is a book in which if I could have entered the text I would have started scattering copies of either The Communist Manifesto or The Fountainhead around indiscriminately because any system of government is better than being ruled by people who are, in a couple of cases literally, walking fart jokes. And everyone who isn't an aristocrat is afflicted with a curious case of not yet having started a violent revolution. I would think that this is a case of Lowry having some kind of meta joke on this genre but the text is not coherent enough to be that self-aware.

In short: every single character totally unlikeable, society completely repellent, jokes unfunny, morals clankingly obvious, plot silly, wordplay unplayful, what the fuck happened to the writer who wrote A Summer to Die?

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When I'm sick, I do a lot of rereading, and I particularly do a lot of rereading of the books I read as a kid; it's comforting, familiar, and doesn't require much brain. So I went back this week and reread almost all of Lois Lowry's Anastasia books. They hold up pretty well, actually. Anastasia Krupnik, the not-quite-teenage protagonist, lives with her parents and brother in Boston (a Boston I realize as an adult is recognizable; as a kid I didn't care) and gets into the sort of gently humorous situation that happens to intelligent, well-loved, interesting children. There are many books out there that try to do this sort of thing, but most of them are painfully twee. Lowry's succeed for me because, as a kid, they caught something about how I thought. For example, when Anastasia's parents tell her that she doesn't need to see a psychologist because she's not badly adjusted, she's just being a teenager (they're right, by the way), her response is to buy a plaster bust of Freud at a yard sale and start trying to use it as an analyst. This made total sense to me at thirteen, and there are levels on which it still does now. Since these were written in the eighties, some things about these have dated-- the technology, of course, but also the way that people treat Anastasia's mother for working, and some of the social things at Anastasia's school-- but basically they continue the same pleasant, funny things they've always been, only now I understand the parents better.

Anyway, after writing several books about Anastasia, Lowry switched audiences and main characters and started writing about Anastasia's younger brother Sam, who is in nursery school. I generally don't like the Sam books as well because I do think they veer into twee, and because that age of child is much less interesting and much less relatable to me. But I did include them in the reread, and found to my surprise that there was one I'd never read at all, namely Attaboy, Sam.

The plot of this one centers around Sam's mother's birthday, for which she has announced she wants homemade presents. Anastasia tries to write a poem, their father tries to paint an oil portrait of his wife, and Sam attempts to make perfume by combining all of his mother's favorite smells, such as yeast from freshly baked bread, and geranium clippings, and ash from his father's pipe, and you see the problem. I enjoyed this because I do vividly remember the desperation of realizing that a homemade present is not only not the spectacular thing it was intended to be, but is in fact a total and complete disaster, and watching that desperation times three is pretty impressive. And of course it works out all right in the end. If you like gently funny, short, naturalistic kids' books, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Then the next day I read another Sector General book by James White-- Code Blue: Emergency, which I gather is a fix-up of several short stories about its principal character. The protagonist here is a fully qualified surgeon for her own species, who winds up at the interspecies Sector General hospital for diplomatic reasons and turns out to be idiosyncratically useful but totally incapable of working with others because of some of her cultural tenets. The thing that amazed me here was how very much this resembled the previous White I'd read, The Galactic Gourmet; the books have precisely the same structure (misfit comes to hospital, does some good things while messing up spectacularly, is shifted through various niches in search of the right one, is eventually sent out on an ambulance ship-- it's even the same ambulance ship). It's just that the main character here is a surgeon, not a chef. The knowledge of which characters are recurring explains to me some of the idiosyncrasies of the previous, because of course the recurring people have more narrative weight. The recurring characters here pretty much do and say exactly what they do and say in The Galactic Gourmet, even.

However, despite the repetitiveness, this was still very entertaining and readable, and I don't think adhering to its formula hurt it at all. What one wants of this sort of book is problem-solving with an sf-medical bent, and that's very present and none of the medical mysteries repeat or are similar to one another, so far. And the arc of how the characters interact may be completely predictable, but honestly it isn't the point. So I still recommend this if you like the medical-sf thing conceptually, although I should note that this book is not as good at gender as the previous, though it didn't make me want to throw it across a room or anything.


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