Monday, January 2, 2012

#5 Best of 2011: A Half-Dozen Books That Blew Me Away


The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

How strange, that this one profession should be so associated with loneliness, virginity, female desperation.” --Rebecca Makkai

The problem is that ten-year-old Ian Drake is more interested in girl stuff than boy stuff. Also, he'd rather read than play. Actually, the problem is that his conservative religious parents want him to be more interested in boy stuff than girl stuff. To that end, they enroll him in anti-gay classes with a celebrity pastor who claims to keep children on the straight and narrow. The Drakes also give town librarian Lucy Hull a list of the types of books Ian is allowed to check out (nothing with wizards, Halloween, or the Theory of Evolution, for instance). Not much gets a librarian more upset than censorship—especially if said librarian is the daughter of a Russian who came to the U.S. precisely because of the freedoms promised in the First Amendment. So what is the twenty-six-year old librarian to do when Ian runs away from home and she finds him the next morning camped out in the library? I mean what is she supposed to do after he gives her the wrong home phone number, the wrong address, and, when she finally gets him in the car and is driving around trying to find his house, catches sight of him “crumpled up on the floor of the backseat, his arms up on his head like in a bomb drill....his whole body heaved with crying or vomiting”? She keeps driving, of course.

This is a charming story about a road trip that might be a kidnapping or might be a rescue. What's so impressive about The Borrower is how author Rebecca Makkai negotiates the ambiguities, how she balances the charm with the serious weighty issues that lie just underneath. So on the surface, we have this smile-inducing quirky-independent-film relationship: lovable creative prepubescent boy who figures out how to smuggle censored books past his mother, meets his soul mate, a librarian who wears a Violent Femmes T-shirt under her cardigan and shares his love of books and likes him for who he is. But even as we're smiling, we have to ask, as the increasingly anxious Lucy does, hard questions about parental rights and overstepping bounds, and how to do the right thing when you can't figure out what's the right thing to do. Think Thelma and Louise picks up Little Miss Sunshine and meets To Kill a Mockingbird at a rest stop.

In her own words:
And so they set off, our comrades the librarian and the bright-cheeked lad, as the sudden winds bent the grass in the fields and raged against the car, seeming almost to lift it from beneath and carry it down the street. When the clouds finally parted and the winds died down, the still-rising sun slid beams of red light through the windows, shining on their hair so it looked for all the world as if they were on fire. There were several roads nearby, but it did not take them long to find the one painted with yellow lines and dotted with weathered billboards. Within a short time they were driving briskly toward the west, the boy navigating with directions that came from no place but the lovely magic of his imagination. The sun shone brightly and the birds sang sweetly and Library Lady hummed as she drove on the black and sparkling road, and although (truth be told) her face betrayed some anxiety about the journey ahead, she did not feel nearly so bad as you might think.”

Next Up: Another extraordinary child gets an audience with the Sultan...

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