May 08, 2008


A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End: The Right Way to Write Writing. By Avi. Harcourt. $14.95.

The Seer of Shadows. By Avi. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Perhaps the most charmingly convoluted introduction to the art and craft of writing ever created, Avi’s A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End features the return of Avon the snail and Edward the ant in a surprisingly philosophical and verbally intricate adventure in which nothing much happens except a lengthy discussion of what it means to write, how one writes, what one writes about, and how one gets those thoughts – whatever they may be – down on paper. These characters previously appeared in The End of the Beginning, which was clearly aimed at young readers with an offbeat sense of humor. A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End, though, is appropriate for anyone interested in writing, although it will actually be too complex and filled with wordplay for literalists (whether young or old). Here, for example, is Edward’s explanation to Avon of the importance of punctuation: “‘Listen to this. …Avon! Don’t forget all I said. You must not! Speak the truth about what happened! Things will be better, I think. To lie about the truth, it never helps.’ …[Or] you might want to put it this way: ‘Avon, don’t! Forget all I said. You must not speak the truth about what happened. Things will be! Better, I think, to lie. About the truth – It never helps!’” Or here is a typical exchange between the two characters: “Edward became raddled with embarrassment. ‘Avon,’ he said, ‘a word to the wise is sufficient.’ Avon thought for a while, and then he said, ‘Edward, what wise word would that actually be?’ Edward shrugged all of his shoulders. ‘Creatures have spent years trying to discover that word. I’m not so sure there is one.’ ‘Edward,’ said Avon, ‘those are the wisest words you’ve ever said.’” Perennially self-referential, always witty and written with all the mock solemnity of a journey through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End touches on a wide variety of elements of writing, from subject matter to style, but does so in such a lighthearted way that it can be enjoyed entirely as wordplay and amusement without consideration of any profundities. Still, Avi does insist on making some points, and he does so in a very Carroll-ish way, as when Avon and Edward encounter a bullying tree frog: “‘Don’t try to confuse me with logic,’ said the tree frog. ‘The only things I hate more than logic are facts that tell me I’m wrong.’ ‘What about facts that tell you you’re right?’ ‘This being a free country,’ said the tree frog, ‘I don’t care what you say as long as I get to decide which facts are right and which are wrong.’” This is a thoroughly remarkable little book by an author who plays with writing even if he is not writing plays.

      What Avi is writing is a series of highly effective novels, most of them far more straightforward than A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End. His A Seer of Shadows is a very effective ghost story and historical romance, intended for ages 8-12 but packed with enough drama and interesting history to be attractive even to young teenagers. The word “seer” usually means “prophet,” but here it literally means “see-er,” one who sees, because that is what Horace Carpetine turns out to be. This is a tale of the early days of photography, and Avi’s descriptions of the making of early photos using glass plates are knowledgeable, fascinating and absolutely crucial to the tale. Horace is apprenticed to a not-very-honest photographer named Enoch Middleditch, who decides he can make some extra money by arranging for ghostly images of dead children to appear within photos of wealthy grieving women. The way this is done – by double exposure – is interesting enough; but unknown both to Middleditch and (initially) to Horace, the apprentice can really make ghosts show up in pictures. And, it turns out, he can bring one particular ghost back into the real world – in search of revenge. The book is a thriller, a ghost story and a tale of changing social fabric all in one. The last of these elements comes from the developing friendship and respect between Horace, who is white, and Pegg, the black servant of the rich couple that Middleditch hopes to defraud. The intertwining of the world of the quick and the dead parallels that of whites and blacks in this post-Civil War era, leading eventually to a merger of the two stories and an ambiguous ending that will leave readers with a touch of uncertainty and even fear. Avi is a see-er himself – of the past, of present readers, and of future would-be writers.

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