Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rear window

I've fallen quite far behind in blogging, but even though it's been weeks since I finished Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy it's still pretty fresh. The author is just so skilled at setting -- in addition to the thoughtful puzzles she creates for her characters and her readers -- that Georges' Brooklyn apartment building and the mysteries that occurred there still occupy a corner of my brain (although maybe that's just guilt because it's been three weeks since I finished it).  Stead's work is memorable enough that -- unlike some authors -- I'm not having any difficulty keeping it separate from First Light, her first novel and one I just finished listening to a few weeks before.

Georges (the s is silent) has had a rough couple of months.  Aside from the fact that his parents named him after the pointillist Georges Seurat (a copy of his most famous painting hangs in Georges' family's living room) -- which causes relentless teasing from his seventh grade classmates ("Hey there Gorgeous!"), he and his parents have had to move out of their home because his architect-father was laid off, his mother is working long shifts at her nursing job to make ends meet, and his best friend has inexplicably joined the A-list crowd. But things start to look up when he sees a sign in the laundry room announcing the meeting of Spy Club in his new apartment building.

At the meeting, the only other members are a brother and sister, Safer and Candy, who live on the top floor.  Safer is a year or so older than Georges, and he is deeply suspicious of the guy who lives on the floor below, Mr. X, who frequently leaves in the middle of the night carrying large suitcases.  Safer, who is homeschooled, convinces Georges to join him in exposing Mr. X and the two of them embark on their mission to uncover the truth. At the same time, Georges is welcomed into the boisterous household of Safer and his family, something he finds he needs as his parents are away, occasionally past his bedtime.

Unlike Stead's other books, this one has no supernatural elements, but her recurring theme of friendship and how it evolves is honestly evoked here. Georges has some growing up to do and he knows it, but he's also resentful of having to do so, which makes him endearing and utterly real. It's not difficult to imagine this kid. I like how occasional fun facts are delivered without cluttering up the story -- wild parrots in Brooklyn, a bodega owner who demonstrates math when he makes change, the "gay test" (something about a shorter finger)!  Stead's puzzle is mildly entertaining, unlike When You Reach Me (where it's fantastic!), but I thought the aha! moment was a little bit of a downer (kind of like Georges).  I did like the flutters of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window that listening to the book gave me.

Liar & Spy is read by Jesse Bernstein, a familiar reader from my years of listening to kids books.  He's not a narrator I seek out as a rule, but he does professional work, always.  There's a little New York in his youthful delivery that works nicely for young Georges.  Safer -- a character with somewhat hidden depths -- is voiced quietly and more maturely, while the annoying little sister Candy is read annoyingly in an appealing way. The short book moves along at a steady pace.

One thing makes this a little awkward in audio. There is a very interesting character, a classmate of Georges whom he calls Bob English Who Draws.  BEWD uses imaginative (or just plain mal-educated) spelling in the notes that he passes to Georges in class, and these are painstakingly spelled by Bernstein as he reads the novel. Fortunately, there aren't too many of these.

Stead's books straddle a fine line -- they are so evocative of New York, yet the New York they show isn't an inaccessible one to kids who've never been there. As a former Brooklyn-ite, I was mildly curious about where exactly Georges' neighborhood was.  But, really, it could be any neighborhood, anywhere. Her characters and situations are ones that nearly every kid would recognize.

[Georges' favorite part of Seurat's (whom he calls Sir-Ott) painting is the monkey on a leash in the foreground. Since to reproduce Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884 would render it insignificant, I found instead a study Sept singes, from the Musée du Louvre print collection.]

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Narrated by Jesse Bernstein
Listening Library, 2012.  4:41

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