April 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Number of major East Coast cities visited in the last ten days: 3 (Washington D.C., New York City, Boston)
Number of colleges visited in those ten days: 8
Number of colleges that seem approximately the same as at least one other college we visited: 8
Number of times I ever want to tour another college again: 0
Number of hours spent on a plane, train, or in a car: approximately a thousand.
Number of books read during the trip: 4 (I think).
Number of books I read that I have never read before: 0 (I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON).
Wow, you guys. It’s been a while.
Here is the bad news: I did not read a single new book on this trip (despite my very best intentions).
Here is the good news: I enjoyed all of the books that I read on this trip (isn’t that what matters?). Some more good news: I did pick up a little newsletter from an independent bookstore somewhere in rural Vermont, and it’s given me several great leads on new YA books that I am very excited to read, so hopefully at some point in the near future I will actually read one, and report back.
But. Here is what I DID read:
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. I think that when you read a 500+-page book about a really depressing topic TWICE, and you do not regret it at all (either time), it’s fair to call it one of your favorite books. For me, this is the case with Matterhorn. Matterhorn follows the story of a low-ranking officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and is probably as close as I will ever get (I hope) to experiencing the horrors of armed combat in the jungle. Written by an ex-Marine, and drawing heavily from his experiences and his memories of his friends in the Marines, this book is a intimate portrait of hardships of life in the army, of the hardships of holding on to one’s integrity when forced by circumstances to do things against one’s beliefs, of the hardships of navigating the racial tensions that sprung up during the war as black and white soldiers were expected to serve alongside each other as equals even as the Civil Rights movement took off back home. Without ever leaving the setting of the Vietnamese jungle, spanning a few months, and touching on the lives of dozens of men from all walks of life who are thrown together unexpectedly in the most difficult of circumstances, this novel is about grace and pain and politics and anger and love. By turns beautiful, harsh, and achingly poignant, it is a masterful piece of literature. I believe that if all world leaders read this book, there would be less war in the world. Highly recommended.
A Darker Place by Laurie R. King. This is another mystery from an author I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but this time instead of resurrecting supposedly-dead detectives, she takes us into the heart of “cult” culture, and the strange and sometimes deadly social and psychological forces that operate within these communities. King, as always, manages to be both entertaining as well as intellectual and somewhat educational in her writing. In fact, she has lent this novel in particular an academic air which gives the whole plot a note of authenticity and seriousness that is rare in the genre – this is not just a pack of cheap thrills, though thrill it does. But you won’t find cadavers, crime scenes, or trails of evidence in this book; expect a more nuanced, undercover investigation storyline. Be prepared for an abrupt ending!
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Another book that has already received mention on this blog; while in New York we were fortunate to be able to go see the brand-new adaptation of this lovely story on Broadway! The play was great fun, very witty and benefited from both great acting and some truly phenomenal staging; mostly, however, it made me want to re-read the book! So luckily my sister had brought it with us in anticipation of this, and I delved right in. Although a thick book, it’s a quick read and reminded me of how much I like this series. In my opinion, the storyline (which spans four books now, all prequels chronicling the events leading up to Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie) is inventive, well-paced, and full of both funny and tender moments. I highly recommend the audio-books as well; in fact, I might like those better than actually reading them! Rent these for your next long road-trip, or as I used to do, listen to them when you’re sick in bed. I would deem these great for family read-alouds, as they are totally appropriate for a wide age-range (there are some scary pirates though). (As an aside, although I don’t generally review movies here, if you’re a fan of Peter Pan, please check out the fantastic film Finding Neverland, which is another “backstory” to the writing of Peter Pan and features masterful performances from Johnny Depp as J.M Barrie himself, Kate Winslet, and Freddy Highmore. Although tragic in ending, it’s a beautiful and well-acted film, and very charming.)
Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult. I always find myself reading a Jodi Picoult novel or two while traveling – luckily she has about twenty or more to choose from, and they are all quite lengthy! Picoult’s style is generally to tell a story or chronicle a series of events from the points of view of several different central characters; many of her books also have an interesting legal component to them, but they are far from mere courtroom dramas. Picoult loves to delve deep into the moral and emotional gray areas of life, and to explore issues from multiple sides. She is a master of the plot-twist and of the ambiguous ending, but her characters are generally interesting and multi-dimensional, as well as sympathetic. While her writing style can verge on the edge of overly-sentimental for my taste at times, I keep returning to her books for emotionally satisfying reads. I would call them my guilty-pleasures, although I don’t feel particularly guilty about them…. I also like that Picoult prides herself on meticulous research, so I can always count on learning something new from one of her novels. Songs of the Humback Whale is, I believe, one of her earliest efforts (if not her first), and features a mother and her teenage daughter as they journey across the country after fleeing an unhappy marriage. Along the way, the two women confront their pasts and wonder about the future, and eventually come to spend some time on an apple orchard in Massachusetts, where the 35 year-old mother and her 15 year-old daughter each find themselves falling in love with two different men who are both 25 years-old. As you can imagine, tension abounds, eyebrows are raised, and all in all, Picoult, in her signature way, manages to bring up interesting questions that challenge our assumptions: about what makes a relationship legitimate, who gets to decide that, and when do those “rules” no longer apply. Other favorite Picoult works include Nine Minutes, House Rules, Sing You Home and Salem Falls.
So that is my roundup of recent reads; hopefully in the near future I can read some of the new books I have my eye on, including Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin. I should also probably attend to the growing pile of books to read that is spreading across my desk….wish me luck. School starts Monday…I’m going under on the count of three.
March 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
His name is Chris Crutcher, and he’s a genius.
Here is the first Chris Crutcher book I ever read: Whale Talk. It’s ostensibly about a smart, well-liked but not traditionally “popular” high schooler named T. J. Jones who starts a swim team for misfits.
Here’s what it’s really about: it’s about not using the fact that you’re surrounded by negative influences to excuse yourself from being a good person. It’s about being open-minded, it’s about being intelligent and working hard and understanding those two things don’t necessarily equate each other. It’s about ignorance. It’s about families, and about loss. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Twice. Maybe three times?
Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes explore many similar themes: loyalty, friendship, and more loss. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe these books without giving the plots away, and making them sound much, much less interesting than they are.
What I do know is that Crutcher has a gift for creating some of the most dignified, intelligent, honest, and realistic high school boy protagonists in literature. These boys – and his stories, almost without exception, feature high school boys within some sort of athletic context (although, gosh, does Crutcher do a good job with his girls in secondary roles) – are my role models. They come from families they love, and hate, and love to hate. They’re challenged on the field or in the pool by coaches, in the classroom by teachers, by the girls they like and the mentors they pick up here and there, and at home by their parents. And they rise to the larger challenge that is posed to them: to be young men, authentic to themselves and at the same time fit into society.
I am not doing these books any favors by yammering away about how badly I’m crushing on all the guys in these books, so I’ll leave you with my other favorites (in addition to the two mentioned above): Running Loose, Athletic Shorts (a collection of short stories, although all of Crutcher’s novels are fairly short), King of the Mild Frontier (his autobiography about growing up in a small town in Idaho), and Stotan!. (If you’ve read all these, or are crazy and refuse to, then how about Sherman Alexie’s The Real-Life Diary of a Part-Time Indian? It’s very similar, and equally wonderful).
Also, worth knowing that the books deal up-front with all the issues that face high school boys, and that this bears keeping in mind when thinking about potential audiences – Chris Crutcher is one of the most commonly banned authors in the country (something he’s quite proud of) (could if have anything to do with his characters’ tendencies to stand up to narrow-minded bullies in school administrations?)
Now please – go read them.
March 8, 2012 § 4 Comments
It’s been two of those weeks – where I hardly have a chance to breathe in between everything going on in my life right now. I wish I could say that I’ve been reading great literature, but really mostly what I’ve been reading is texts for school (which aren’t bad actually – right now we’re reading Jump! by Nadine Gordimer, which I encourage anyone with an interest in African history and culture, or anyone with a penchant for exceptionally skilled writing to try).
But, if we’re being honest here (and I do try), that’s not what I WANT to be reading. What I want to be reading right now is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (great name, by the way – very dashing!), which I received in the mail for my birthday a few days ago. I was immediately intrigued by the cover:
(photo courtesy of alternativemagazineonline.co.uk)
Opening the cover and flipping through the pages, I found many more vintage photos similar to the first, scattered two or three to a chapter (a similar effect, I think, to the drawings in Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret). I began reading.
Here I am, six days later, and I am still reading it, which is quite the recommendation considering my current schedule. It’s a little quirky, a little off-beat, but I find the writing unusually authentic to the “teenage experience” and the main character, Jacob, is that rare and welcome adolescent male protagonist who is thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, and still a boy. (More on those later, but if you need a quick fix for awesome boys in literature, I can only say Chris Crutcher with all my heart.)
To sum up – this is certainly worth a try for people who like soft mysteries, or vintage intrigue, or a little bit of time travel. If you are looking for something in a similar vein, but perhaps for a slightly younger audience in the 7-10 range, give The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart a try (three books in the series so far, with at least one more to come). I hear it makes a great read-aloud.
Me, I’m just looking to leave this city and this life, for a few minutes at a time, as I wait for all the crazy in my life to subside; and this book is my ticket out of here.
Cheers to that.
February 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
There’s a trend on the rise in the world of young-adult literature, and it ain’t pretty…books with post-apocalyptic and dystopian themes are incredibly popular amongst young readers these days, and there are many authors who are eager to supply this demand. The most widely known, of course, is the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
In case you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games, I’ll fill you in. This series takes place in the future in North America, where twelve “districts”, populated with poor manual laborers, live under the thumb of the Capitol, a distant, modern city where the leaders of Panem (this country) live extravagant lifestyles and plot new ways to keep the districts and their inhabitants subjugated. The most important way that this happens is through the yearly Hunger Games, where two children (one boy, one girl) between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen from each district as contestants in the Hunger Games, and are then sent to a massive, carefully designed arena to compete in a televised fight to the death against their 23 rivals.
….and that’s where many parents start to shake their heads and cover their childrens’ ears.
This, of course, is a totally understandable reaction. It is a very grim subject, and there is certainly a time and place for screening what your child is reading, and if you have young children or easily-scared children, or children who are not developmentally ready to be reading about murder, for crying out loud, then this is the time and place for it.
But with that said, I think The Hunger Games is an excellent book. I’ve read it several times, and I love it. I love it for its gripping, movie-like plot (which, by the way, makes it a great read for kids who normally struggle to enjoy slower-paced books). I love it for its nuanced protagonist (a girl!). Most of all, I think that Collins has a gift for creating vivid characters, and I love them most of all. But just because it’s a good book doesn’t mean that you should shove away your concerns and hand it to your 8-year-old. It is grim. There is blood and there is pain and there is killing, and it comes at the hands of children.
But kids are being exposed to violence at ever-younger ages these days. It has permeated into pop-culture, into music, and movies, and video games, and books. It’s there, and kids will see it, no matter how hard you try to protect them. That is why I argue that to expose them to The Hunger Games helps them see violence in all its shades of gray. The characters in The Hunger Games are, largely, sympathetic people and they do not want to fight. And when they do, it costs them – even when they are protecting themselves or the ones the love, taking the life of another human being comes at a high price and we, as readers, get a glimpse of that. I don’t think that people will read The Hunger Games and come away desensitized to the idea of children killing each other (as some fear). I think that people will come away admiring the main characters for challenging the status quo and for exhibiting bravery in the face of impossible choices and for trying to hold on to their self-respect as they are forced to do bad things.
But if you are still reluctant give the green light for this book – and like I said, that’s understandable – then there are some other great dystopia books out there. One that I read over the summer, called Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, weaves together similar themes of children and the broken-ness of future society in a less shocking way. Or, to go backwards in time to an older series, the last book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis, deals with the rebirth of man, beast, and world after the anti-Christ figure shows up – but this book, in addition to being the last of seven, also has some complex religious and racial themes that make it less-than-perfect for scratching that itch. One series that I have enjoyed (despite the formulaic nature of the thirteen books) is Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has naught to do with the apocalypse or a dystopia but merely with the incredibly bad luck of three orphans, and is maybe a good entry point for young readers if you’re not sure how they will deal with books that are not all goodness and light. Finally, if you’re an adult looking for a really dark read, I highly recommend The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, but this is NOT for children. It does have a sequel as well, which I have yet to muster the courage to finish.
As one final note to this (very long) post, I want to say that I think books with dark and/or unhappy themes and events are good for kids to be exposed to because we live in a world where everyone – children included – is exposed to bad things in the world. Climate change, wars over land and resources, increasingly polarized politics – it’s all enough to get anyone down. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, reading books that seem depressing or sad can sometimes makes us look around and appreciate what we have now all the more. They can help us - especially children, who don’t have the same ability to process emotions yet – deal with that vague sense of doom and gloom that pervades our world these days.
Or you could just go read my old favorite picture book, Joyce Dunbar’s Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep.
February 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
When I was little, I wanted to be a pirate. We built a boat, and although it was small and simple and named Fern, I insisted we string up a Jolly Roger. I outfitted my treehouse with a pulley system and another flagpole. I went to pirate camp.
I guess I could spend time being embarrassed about that, but it was really fun for a young nerd like me. I got to build my own wooden dagger. I wore a bandana and torn pants. I think I may have donned an eyepatch. I was hardcore.
I was also obsessed with pirate literature, of course, and I found some great books. Some of them I didn’t come across until after I had passed out of that phase, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for the skull and crossbones and a good pirate book.
It started, of course, with Swallows and Amazons (which I wrote about for my first post) but there were also some great children’s books, like The Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen, which introduced me to Anne Bonney and Mary Reed, two of history’s most mysterious female pirates. After that, I was drawn more to pirate stories that had female pirates, and someone gave me a great little non-fiction book also by Jane Yolen, Sea Queens, which profiles female pirates through the ages and from all over the world. Needless to say, I pored over that one (and the title, embarrassingly enough, became the inspiration for my very first email address).
From there, I read Piratica by Tanith Lee, which weaves in lots of subtle humor and some interesting twists – it took me a couple of re-readings, but I did like it in the end. I also read Pirates! by Celia Rees. This was also hard for me to like at first; I read it when I was too young to enjoy the darkness of the plot (it gets quite grim and graphic) but now I’ve come to like for its colorful characters and the interesting questions of identity the protagonist wrestles with.
Another example of good pirate literature that just came to mind is Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, (there are now four novels in the series) which is a fantastic series in its own right, but actually deals with events leading up to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Peter and the Starcatchers has some great piratical characters (can anyone help but love Smee?) and imagery, all woven into the context of the larger story.
What occupation were you sighing over as a child? What books made you want to grow up so you could start your dream job?
Also, I’d like to invite anyone to email me at thebookdowser AT gmail DOT com, or leave a comment, if you’re looking to find a book to give as a gift but are feeling lost, or are looking for a recommendation. I’d love to help!
February 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
One densely humid night this past summer (late spring, really) found me in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, struggling to stay calm as I surveyed the scene of our little guest room. There were at least two large, unidentified but scary-looking spiders that I was keeping tabs on as I moved around the room; my mattress and pillow….did not look washed (a solvable problem, admittedly, thanks to my sleep sack, although the bloodstains were kind of unpleasant); and the bathroom was literally a breeding ground for mosquitoes: you inhaled them if you opened the door.
This was following the dinner during which we’d discovered shards of glass in our rice.
OK – so to be fair, it was pretty much the first bad experience we’d had in traveling around Vietnam for 3 weeks (and in the following 2 months in India and Turkey, it still stands out as one of the worst nights) so we probably had it coming our way. But that didn’t make me feel any better right then.
So what else was there to do, really, besides pull out the trusty e-reader and open up The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, by Jeanne Birdsall, the third in a series about the lovely and adventurous Penderwick girls (and their friend Jeffrey) as they get into and out of all the various scrapes that come with growing up (especially with a large dog around). There’s nothing like a safe, cozy book to make a girl forget about spiders. I like to hang around the Penderwicks when I’m feeling stressed or sad, not because none of the Penderwicks are ever stressed or sad, but because they eventually work through it, with tears and hugs and the help of the people that love them, and that’s something that’s good to be reminded of.
I could go on about the sweet likability of these four girls and the wonderful way Birdsall brings them each – in a distinct, individual way – to life, and their most wise and dear “Daddy”, but I won’t because I’m really curious to find out what you all like to read when you need to take a break from the rest of your life. What’s your go-to “comfort read”? Leave a comment – maybe I’ll find something new!
P.S. If you have read The Penderwicks (which is the title of the first book) and are looking for something similar, you might (if you haven’t already) try Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which is a slightly different flavor of the same theme, and another one of my favorite books to re-read when I want something relaxing and relatively lighthearted.
January 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
It turns out that when you’re a seventeen year-old girl with a penchant for reading fantasy fiction written (mostly) for nine year-old boys, your friends might think you’re a little weird.
You know what I think? I think that when you come across a series like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, by Rick Riordan, it’s worth enduring a few strange looks to find out how the heroes fare.
The Percy Jackson books have enjoyed immense popularity in the past few years – especially (but not exclusively!!) with young boys, and there’s a good reason. Percy inhabits a world where the Greek gods still reign supreme – and young half-bloods like Percy (the offspring of one human parent and one divine) have to battle mythical monsters under orders to destroy the gods – and life as we know it – while simultaneously avoiding detection by regular mortals and trying not to get killed.
As Percy gains some knowledge about who he is and what his skills (and responsibilities) are, his life is turned upside down. He goes to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp where demigods can learn essential skills in weaponry, prophecy-interpretation, and Ancient Greek, and embarks on a quest where he comes across a truly vicious Chihuahua, a faun with a fondness for burritos and tin foil, and a dangerous water bed salesman.
There are five books in the first series, and then Riordan took a stab at Egyptian mythology in his book The Red Pyramid, but unless you have a strong preference for Egyptian gods over the Greek ones, I didn’t find it as compelling. If the first five books haven’t quenched your thirst, go with his new series (with many of the same characters), The Heroes of Olympus.For a different author, and a more sci-fi vibe than hisorical, definitely read Artemis Fowl (first of a series of seven) by the fantastic and funny Eoin Colfer (but that deserves it’s own post sometime in the future…).
Chock-full of humor and adventure, with a fast pace and eminently likable characters (and even a sweet romantic subplot), Percy Jackson’s adventures are a good choice for anyone – including those who know their Greek mythology (Riordan does a great job of bringing modern and often funny updates to many of the more popular myths) – but especially if you’re ever looking for the perfect present for that pre-teen boy in your life (or, um, the teenage girl…just be sure she doesn’t mind the weird looks).