Book Review: The Canning Season

I’ve worked for the same itty-bitty library in an itty-bitty town for six years now.  It’s nearly a one-stoplight affair (actually, there are seven or eight), but the town isn’t exactly backwater.  It’s easiest to think of everything within its boundaries as a hoighty-toighty neighborhood in which every other vehicle is a Mercedes or BMW; and if you hold a job in that town, no matter what it is, you’re inconsequential.

After six years of being inconsequential, I’m still amazed by how the residents manage to stare down their noses without tripping.

But, more often than not, their scorn is silent.  So my only real opportunity to mock them comes when they decide to remind us that whatever it is we’re doing, we’re not doing it well enough.

In this case, it means our book selections.

On Thursday, a copy of Polly Horvath’s The Canning Season was returned with a note paperclipped to the front cover.  The note was addressed, in careful longhand, to the children’s librarians, and the snippets I do remember went something like this:

“…National Book Award, which used to stand for quality…”
“…a suicide described in graphic detail…”
“…teacher who refers to her students as ‘little f—ks.”
  (censorship not mine)

Now, Horvath is one of my favorite authors.  She’s unflinchingly real and has no understanding of fluff.  If anything, I’d have to say she’s got the best shot at being The Next Roald Dahl.  (The title’s been haphazardly assigned to J. K. Rowling on occasion, but I’m still puzzling over that one.)  Horvath is effortlessly witty and is happy to provide readers with a much-needed breath of realistic air, even if it smells a bit like old socks.

The book in question is a teen book — so labeled and so shelved — and could hardly be mistaken for another installment of Henry and Mudge.  Actually, the only thing that separates teen books from adult books is the subject matter.  The protagonists are usually teens (sometimes teens with special powers), but that’s really all the difference there is.  Everything else is free game.

When the group of us finished scratching our heads at the circulation desk, the children’s librarian pointed out that central selection sends us the books, and that the system automatically purchases any National Book Award winners without so much as blinking.

While the others were busy scouring the note for further gold, I quietly spirited the book away so that I could read it myself. As expected, The Canning Season is classic Horvath: unapologetic, uproarious and unforgettable.  Thirteen-year-old Ratchet is sent to spend the summer with her two wonderfully insane aunts, who recall their quirky lives with such offhandedness that we have no choice but to envy them.  Or, in the case of my library’s lone critic, revile them.

To address the complaints: yes, a suicide is recounted in cartoonish detail (“I don’t think she quite expected [the head] to bounce like that…”); yes, the tutor referred to her spoilt charges as “little fucks” (rightfully so, in her mind); and yes, the National Book Award still does stand for quality.  And Horvath has earned it without question.

It was our collective decision that whoever penned the note should be steered clear of all books not pertaining to knitting or gardening, or perhaps anything giving off a faint aroma of imagination.

Or better yet, lock the offender in a room with any number of today’s 13-year-olds.  When her ears have been properly scorched from the sides of her head, Horvath will look quite tame.

the canning season aydee

~ by AyDee on July 19, 2008.

2 Responses to “Book Review: The Canning Season”

  1. I must admit, I adore you. I chanced upon this blog while searching for something quite unrelated, and I’m very glad I did. I’ve read a few of your posts and I am very impressed.
    The one about Eragon was eye-opening, and I was unsure whether I should thank or curse you for it. I am in the middle of writing a fantasy book of my own, and your words have served as a warning to me… My greatest fear now is that what I write would be labeled much the same as Eragon was. Unoriginal, full of cliches and purple prose, and simply bleh. *dies*
    If you haven’t already, you should write some sort of list of do’s and don’ts of fantasy writing, if ever you have the time.

    • Thank you so much!

      If I have any fantasy writing advice to give, it’s this: Keep at it. Don’t let some blogger scare you off writing because of all the mistakes you could make. (I would never forgive myself.)

      If there were a second bit of advice, it’s to look for guidance from those who wield creativity well, not from those who have failed. Writing from a list of Things Not to Do is impossible.

      (Excellent sources of humility include Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle. Maybe Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.)

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