Monday, June 18, 2012

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Utterly Charming! You know, there are some writers out there who enjoy using words, and breaking enough grammar rules to keep things interesting. I think that especially in a book of diary or letter arrangement, grammar rules can be made a little looser. Whenever I read a book like this I want to dash off and pen a dozen witty, clever, interesting, happy, lively letters. I think my friends would tire of the copy-cat sentiment that would be produced by such a reaction, though.

Years ago I watched the movie of 84, Charing Cross Road. I didn't like it. Now I know why! Such a compendium was never, ever meant to be transferred to the screen – I don't care how many TV scripts the author wrote. Theses were letters, between a reserved English gentleman in a bookshop and a penniless girl writing from a New York apartment. Over about twenty years, Helene Hanff and Frank Doel wrote across an ocean as she sought books and he found them. Helene has a noisy sense of humor and a proclivity for uppercase letters when she is PARTICULARLY PEEVED. Additionally, her loving and vivid descriptions of the editions she secured are enough for any bibliophile to sigh, and the idea of an Englishman in a bookshop in England pulling books off shelves and wrapping them up and sending them off to America is something any buyer of old volumes would have to be envious of.

I was surprised by what great blocks of time were blotted out, silent between letters. There were obviously large sections of the correspondence missing, also. Reading the book feels distinctly like sitting in a somewhat noisy cafe and evesdropping on the very interesting conversation happening one or two tables over from you. You miss bits of it, and the bits you hear make you want to go over and barge your way into the conversation, making them start over at the beginning and repeat whatever you missed. Of course, you can't, not in either case – it would be terribly rude.

I picked this book up because my friend Teresa has made mention of it before and expressed her deepest admiration for the little book. On her trip to England last Spring she also stopped by the place where the shop used to be, and sent me a picture of a little plaque commemorating the spot. I am glad to have had the pleasure of reading it. It's very brief, lots of fun, and an absolute delight to either anglo- or bibliophiles, or both. 

I read the book in about an hour all told. Amazon has it for quite cheap!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

Recently I've discovered the mixed blessing of Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Many of them serve the dual purpose of making me laugh aloud, and also groan with sorrow. Few and far between are the truly thoughtful reviews that give me some idea of a books high and low points, strengths and weaknesses, worthiness and readability.
Looking up An American Childhood, I found many of the reviews, both good and bad, asked the same question: why, Ms. Dillard, should we care about your incredibly ordinary coming of age?
Everyone in my book club, for which I had chosen this title, asked the same question.
During our discussion of the book, there were numerous times where someone would pipe up with a memory or a story of something they had done, or something that had happened to them as a child, or just something about what they were like when young. This was actually one of the best parts of our meeting, where everyone reminisced and shared stories about their own childhood. We weren't really discussing Dillard's life, no, but her own ordinary existence reminded us of our unextraordinary lives, and as we laughed and remembered we all got to know each other a little better. We could identify with Dillard's past, not because we grew up in Pittsburgh in the '50's, but because we grew up.
Similarly, her accounts of life as a five year old, a ten year old, brought us back to when we were those ages. She really has a way of recalling the way a child views the world. Many times she would describe a feeling she had or a discovery she made, and I would think yes! I remember that too! The whole book is interwoven with a theme of discovery, and when she describes a young child's gradual 'awakening' to the world around them and their place in the world, their own actual presence and humanness, it's very lucid. Another time she talks about her relationship to books as an escape - she could lie on her bed for hours consuming stories, becoming lost in them and desperately involved in every word.
Dillard described everything she experienced with wonder and amazement. From her parents she inherited an insatiable thirst for life, and it infuses her writing. One of the women in my book club posed the question (in a very nonjudgemental way), why is Dillard worth reading? and I think this is one of the reasons. She doesn't write from a Christian perspective, but a reader with that perspective can clearly see creation's beauty through her descriptions of nature, can be impressed by God's handiwork in human beings by our ability to learn, to reason and to grow. We also can take Dillard's enthusiasm and vivacity and, in our lives as worshipful created beings, give it meaning and purpose.

In the end, I think the reasons for reading about Dillard's childhood and reading Dillard at all are the same. She has a gift for writing. She puts things in a way that draws us in and makes us recall what she's saying in our own lives - she talks about growing up, and we remember growing up. She talks about throwing snowballs and we remember snowballs. She talks about family trips to the lake and we remember similar times in our own pasts. Her ability to wonder and be swept away by the beauty in life also serves as a reminder to see the beauty around us, to let ourselves be amazed by something as simple as a rock or a moth, and to hold on to our human ability to be touched by that wonder.

Dillard certainly can turn a phrase with her clean, imaginative style. She has a brilliant use of metaphor, also - in once chapter she describes a beetle she had added to her insect collection still working its legs, trying to walk off its pin, and chapters later she compares herself to that beetle, with just a couple of words harkening back to crawling while pinned in place. I really love Dillard's writing, and I enjoyed An American Childhood (mostly, as I said, because of the memories it brought out during our book club.) However, I don't consider it one of her best works - I prefer her shorter, essay-style nonfiction. Teaching a Stone to Talk is excellent, and so is A Writing Life. Her style doesn't work quite so well in the novel The Maytrees, but I want to read The Living and see what it's like.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games, Plus Some Ranting. Also a New Plan.

I do not live in a cave, and so I know about The Hunger Games. I happen to work in a library, and so, I have read The Hunger Games (yes – all three.)
The writing wasn't very good. I mentally compared it to the writing of Harry Potter and found it some levels lower. The story, I thought, was perhaps not original but good. I'm drawn to dystopian literature anyway, and the 'whole gladiator games thing' was interesting. But there was an ominous lack of one thing in the series: message. What was the book about? What was Collins trying to say? It's pretty obvious that the book, though nine tenths of it is comprised of violence among children and youths, is anti-violence, though not necessarily anti-war. But what solution was proffered? Katniss is certainly dissatisfied with her lot, but she is not able to change the course of events. In the third book, when she has the opportunity to, she takes the road of fighting back – fighting fire with fire, a profoundly unchristian way to go about things.
In spite of all things, I have found myself somewhat favorably disposed towards these books. Why, oh why?

Last night I had a nice debate with my brother about the value of The Hunger Games. Mostly, my argument came down to the old “at least it's got them reading” - an attitude I once abhorred. However, through my job at the library I have come to see a lot of value in that attitude. Kids read trash. Grown-ups read trash too, and nine times out of ten you don't see any hope of that changing. But then, there's that one kid who comes up and asks, “I just finished The Hunger Games. What should I read next?” and you've got that chance to say, “Here. Read this." From that point, you can move on to better and brighter things. It takes baby steps, but it can be a doorway to really good literature.
SOME people (ahem) would argue that there is no worth in reading worthless books. At face value, I agree. Worthless is worthless. But for anyone who reads one book and still has a desire to read more books, then there is always hope that that person will leave behind the worthless and begin climbing towards literature that is not merely entertainment, but thoughtful and wholesome. So while The Hunger Games is by no means good literature, it is better than a lot of what is out there available for young adults to read. I'd rather they pick up this than some vampire love story full of sex and violence and moral abandon.

So, this is not so much a blog post about The Hunger Games, but about books like them, and my reading of books in general. Here we come to the next scene, wherein Emily apologizes for her recent absence and proposes a new plan for the future, but first makes a broad, sweeping statement.

All Young Adult (YA) books are like The Hunger Games. They are generally poorly written, poorly plotted, poorly peopled with poor characters who are full of themselves and pulling this whole 'who am I, really?' gig, and presented to the poor souls who read them and thus consider themselves heavy readers. If there is a book on the YA shelves that does not meet this criteria, then please, put it on the children's or adult's shelves. YA books have no need to exist. If a child has progressed beyond Charlotte's Web, (although, really, who ever does? I reread that book every summer) then give them Robert Louis Stevenson or Jane Austen or Mark Twain or anything...open the bookshelves to them and let them learn, and teach them how read real books. If you are a young person with a reading level advanced beyond J. K. Rowling or Kate DiCamillo, then you don't need something to bridge the gap between children's books and literature for grown-ups. Not to boast, but I read Great Expectations when I was nine. I came away with the vaguest of ideas about what Pip experienced and what made Estella so awful, and the hilarity and intensity of Dicken's characters, stories and settings was lost on my quite-young, still-developing brain. But reading that book helped my brain to develop; only by reading good books will we learn how to read good books, or understand their worth or be affected by their meaning. We don't learn to eat if we never sink our teeth into anything more solid than mashed carrots. We don't learn to tie our shoes if we only wear sneakers with velcro. We don't learn to digest good books if we don't read good books. We don't need this weird buffer genera that specifically caters to teen angst, disillusionment, coming of age, and rule-breaking, disrespectful, self-absorbed nonsense.
However – if somehow there is one who has slipped and fallen towards the appealing mirage of YA, there are different levels of terrible, and one level can lead to the next. And perhaps one day they can lead right out of the sea of worthless books and on to better and brighter things. There is always hope. It would be better for us all if The Hunger Games didn't exist, and all the books surrounding it that are various degrees of horrible. But they do exist, and one can hope that the reason they exist is to train eyes upward towards the better things.

And so, in light of all this ranting, I had a little epiphany, and it was the main cause of my long blog-silence. (I do so like epiphanies!) I realized that since YA books should be avoided like the plague, then I have absolutely no obligation to myself, to you, or to this blog to ever read another YA book I my life. So there.
Ahhh, but then what happens? What about my nice little bloggy here? Well goodness, there are still  thousands of books out there that I want to read and should read, books that are of value and contain wisdom, insight and meaning. It's a pretty simple solution...I'll just read those books instead. 

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

My problem has been this: at work, I see or hear of certain books that are immensely popular and highly praised (I should get better at knowing who the praise is from) and so, I read them. The Fault in Our Stars is one such book.
This is the only book I've read by John Green, and I found his writing to be very good. This book moved me to tears, a rare occurrence for me. I can count on one hand the books that have made me cry, but I'm not particularly pleased that this one is among greats like A Tale of Two Cities and Cyrano de Bergerac. Yes, I think Green is a good writer who can power his books with love, loss, sorrow, and fear, but he put a whole lot of other stuff in there that really was completely unnecessary.
 
The story centers on two teens who meet at a support group for cancer kids. The narrator, Hazel, has not been without her oxygen tank since her diagnosis several years ago, and Augustus has lost one leg to bone cancer but is now healthy. Hazel knows she will not live for more than a few years, at best. Augustus it seems will live forever.
The rest of the story is about Hazel's favorite book, which is also about a cancer kid and which the author ended in the middle of a sentence, because “It portrays death truthfully. You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence.” The story is also about love, about loving when you know you will someday, perhaps very soon, lose that person. It's also a small encapsulation of life as a broadly untouched surface, as seen by these two people who are doing there best to live well while they have the time. It's an existential book, if you'll forgive the term. It is about life and death.
The characters are precocious, but somehow not annoyingly so. They both have parents who are still married to each other, and their families are close and respectful. So far, everything I have said about this book I have liked. There were two things that ruined it for me. It had a lot of language, and the kids slept together. Both could have been left out and the book would have lost none of its savor, none of its poignancy.
Augustus did believe in Something, but there were no Christian messages in the book. It went more like this:
 “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”
Such an attitude towards a conscious universe would inevitably lead to some idea, however off-center, of God. Yet only through true recognition of God through the Holy Spirit does it bear any meaning.
I wanted so much to like this book, to buy a copy and reread it and tell others to read it, but its good parts cannot override its faults. It is unfortunate.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Charles and Emma: The Darwin's Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma won a medal for excellence in YA nonfiction from ALA, a National Book Award finalist and was a Printz award honor book. Historically, I suppose it may be deserving of such awards. The author does a fine job of placing the Darwin's lives into historical context, including accounts of their contemporaries and occurrences in the world in which they lived. There were also extensive quotes from letters written by both Charles and Emma, as well as some of their friends and children. It was brief, and thus not as thoroughly in depth as another biography (one not written for young adults) may have been, but covered enough detail to give a comprehensive view of the subjects' lives. Charles and Emma, as suggested by the title, focuses on the relationship between the author of the Origin of Species and his wife, and how their lives were shaped by one another. Taken as such, it wasn't too bad.

Taken from a Christian point of view, it was somewhat miserable to read. Just as movies today portray Christians as superstitious and sentimental and mentally deficient, Emma Darwin is shown as a woman swayed primarily by emotion and feeling who, later in life, largely casts off her Christian faith. From the beginning, her theology was riddled with faulty doctrine – she rejected the Trinity, knowingly married a man who was not a believer, and based her faith almost solely on the hope that she would be reunited in the afterlife with a beloved sister who died young. However, it was Emma's Christianity and Charles' theories rejecting a Creator God which this book's conflict centered on.

Even knowing that her husband's theories rejected the God she believed in, Emma supported and encouraged Darwin throughout their lives. They had a strong marriage and were very devoted to each other, and Emma gave herself to caring for her home and family, and keeping a joyful spirit and a warm heart. The Darwin home was very unlike the typical Victorian family, as the many rambunctious children were very close with their parents and never restricted to the nursery.

I wasn't sorry to read this book for its historical value (which, having never explored Darwin's past before, I can only assume is accurate.) However, with its purported focus on how Christianity and godless evolution coexisted (with one finally taking the upper hand), the book utterly failed to acknowledge Christianity as anything more than a collection of nice stories for quiet people. Should I have expected more? Perhaps not, but it would have been nice.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart

Throughout my reading life, there have been certain books that rest on shelves and call to me. Library shelves, bookstore shelves, my own shelves – these books want me to read them. I don't always know what it is about them that appeals to me. Perhaps I am judging books by their covers. (It's not as criminal to do so as you think.)

The Mysterious Benedict Society has been one such book. I don't remember the first time I saw it, but whenever I've chanced to spy it waiting to be reshelved or checked out, it's shone up from the pile and gently whispered to me, 'take and read! Take and read!'

Which is almost what the creepy villain in the book is doing to the whole world – whispering messages into our minds. (Sorry, hope that wasn't too much of a spoiler.)

Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance are four children who are, one way or another, without parents. The four of them have responded to a curious newspaper ad that calls gifted children to participate in a series of tests that will lead them to 'Special Opportunities.' Each child passes the tests using their unique gifts, and are admitted into the presence of the eccentric but entirely loveable green-plaid-clad Mr. Benedict, who immediately informs them that, should they choose to join him, they will be in constant and terrible danger. Who could resist? The children band together and travel to Nomansan Island, where they attend a school bent on controlling the minds of children and, ultimately, the world.

Several things about the book impressed me. It was well written and not over-simplified, covering a wide range of reading levels and, though quite long, moved quickly enough to keep readers engaged. But even more impressive was the author's ability to present to the reader's mind, clearly but not condescendingly, the need for people to use their heads and think about the information that reaches them without simply swallowing everything the media feeds them. One of the main themes of the book is the love of truth, which is one thing the four children all have in common; in fact, it is what marks them for success in their endeavor to expose the villain's plot. Another theme is the importance of each person using their unique abilities to work with each other towards a common goal. In this way, the book is a strong Christian allegory. Like Christ's church, these followers of the truth must work with each other, even when they don't get along or don't understand what is going on or where they are being led, towards the goal set before them. The characters struggle with doubt, anxiety, fear and selfishness, but in the end they are triumphant.

The Mysterious Benedict Society reminded me of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, but while they had similarities they were also markedly opposite. Lemony Snicket's orphans are completely alone and unguided, with only themselves to look to for comfort and direction. They experience numberless catastrophes and attempt to unravel deeply confusing mysteries, all the while struggling to survive. Stewart's orphans, however, are taught and led by someone wise and experienced, who does not attempt to shelter them but rather places them in danger now to prevent disaster in the future. While the Series of Unfortunate Events ends with many unanswered questions and carries a fatalistic message, The Mysterious Benedict Society ends with hope, joy, and a sense of purpose. I enjoyed Lemony Snicket's series VERY much, but I have to say, having read this book, I find it comes out on top.

The Mysterious Benedict Society was brilliant, and I don't know why it took me such a long time to getting around to reading it. (Thank you, Carrie, for choosing it for book club!)

Trenton Lee Stewart has written two books following this, and is working on a prequel. He is also the author of an adult novel, Flood Summer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg

Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Lois Lowery, Stephen King and Gregory Maguire are just some of the authors who contributed to The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. I admit I did not read all of the stories, but the ones I did find time for were really good, ranging from bizarre and silly to The-Yellow-Wallpaper-esque freaky.
The book stems from Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which is a picture book, as are most of Van Allsburg’s works. It contains thirteen pictures, each coupled with a cryptic sentence. One’s imagination can’t help being piqued by the curious words and peculiar pictures, and I found myself inventing whole stories in my head to go along with each. Of course, that was the intent. And of course, that was what led to the creation of Chronicles. I love books like that. Everyone’s imagination needs a good workout once in a while.
I like short stories. They seem to go quickly, and it’s easy to read a book of them over a long period of time without losing track of where the plot is going or losing a grasp on the atmosphere created by the author’s language. For these reasons also it’s easy to pick up a collection, read a few, and reserve the rest for later. I also think many authors experiment more within short story format: for example, Kate Dicamillo’s scary story is written in the form of a young girl’s letters to her brother (who is away at war), which take an alarming turn. This is quite unlike her children’s books which are not without thoughtful, provoking elements, but are never dark. Each story includes the original sentence Van Allsburg paired with the picture. It’s an interesting idea: stories to illustrate pictures, rather than the traditional picture illustrating a story.  

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows

     Bean likes to zip around her yard and yell. Ivy likes to sit quietly and read big books. Bean likes to make a creative mess with glue, paper and markers. Ivy likes to dig up worms and lure in frogs for her magic potions. Both of them like to build on each other's imaginations, creating crazy stories of haunted bathrooms, digging up dinosaur bones, and sneaking across the backyards in their neighborhood, Pancake Court.

     The Ivy and Bean books are very reminiscent of Beverly Cleary's books centering on Ramona, Beezus and Henry. Bean's 11-year-old sister, Nancy, is uppity and scornful of her little sister, and there's a little less love lost between them than between the Quimby sisters. Bean even looks like Ramona, with short straight hair and a proclivity to make noise and break things. And tease Nancy. Also, girls who read these books will be able to relate to the two main characters; I could see my tomboyish 7-year-old self in Bean, my shyness in Ivy.

     It's almost impossible for me to judge by grade what reading level a book should be. I was homeschooled; I only knew what grade I was in so I could explain all this to the clerk at the grocery store when they archly asked why I wasn't in school that day. Having already compared these books to Beverly Cleary, I'd easily put them in the same reading level. And, since Ivy and Bean are in second grade, I'm going to go ahead and assume that that's the grade the book is written for. I enjoyed them, and I think slightly older kids would as well, but not too much older or they'll become boring. The books strongly focus on the active imagination of smallish children, and once someone gets to Nancy's age I am guessing they'd have the same frustration with the pranks and make-believe employed by two seven-year-old girls.

Friday, February 10, 2012

How to Train Your Dragon

By Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, translated from the Old Norse by Cressida Cowell

How to Train Your Dragon was a good, really fun movie, but after reading the book, I'm wondering how on earth the one could have inspired the other. They are nothing alike. I'll count the things that were the same:

  1. The main character is named Hiccup, and he's a scrawny weakling, son of the Viking Chief.
  2. There is a dragon named Toothless.
  3. The book culminates with the destruction of a 'gobsmackingly vast' dragon
  4. There are Viking bully kids who pick on Hiccup.
  5. Toothless sort of saves Hiccup's life in the end.

The book starts with several viking kids being instructed to sneak into the Dragon Nursery in a nearby mountain to kidnap a small sleeping dragon who will become their faithful hunting pal. Next, they have to train their dragons, and pass the initiation, which tests how well the dragons have been trained by their new masters. Hiccup, of course, picks a dragon aptly named Toothless, a dragon who isn't sleek, black, catlike and cunning – he's about the size of a lapdog, whiny, and spoiled, and he doesn't have a broken wing. There's some banishment, some repealed banishment, a little bit of dragon fighting (but not enough!), LOTS of crude humor, and a couple of notes about how to be a hero.

“The point is, I just don't see how I am ever going to become a Hero,” said Hiccup gloomily. “I am the least Heroic boy in the whole Hooligan Tribe.”
“Oh, Pshaw, this ridiculous Tribe,” fumed Old Wrinkly. “Okay, so you are not what we call a born Hero. You're not big and tough and charismatic like Snotlout. But you're just going to have to work at it. You're going to have to learn how to be a Hero the Hard Way.”

Which is good advice. And yes, in the book, Hiccup did become a Hero the Hard Way. He didn't use yelling or muscle or insults, like the dragons and Vikings surrounding him, but he used his cleverness and his concern for the welfare of others to not only save his own life, but to save the whole village. But, in comparison with the movie, I have to say I was disappointed. The plot bounced around too much and the writing was none too good and the illustrations wouldn't appeal to anyone, I'm sure. It's one of those rare and unhappy cases of The-Movie-is-Better-Than-the-Book.

There's a good review of the movie here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett

     It has long been a dream of mine to give up my quiet life as a responsible, law-abiding citizen and turn to crime. Specifically, I want to be an art thief. After stumbling upon a history detailing the discovery of a lost Caravaggio, I have been fascinated by art and its often turbulent history. BUT as romantic and exciting as it sounds to be a professional art thief, the truth is, hardly any of the criminals steal the art for the sake of the art. They do it for plain ol' money. It's just not as glamourous as it seems.

A Lady Writing, attributed to J. Vermeer
     Chasing Vermeer is about an art theft and two children who embark on a mad adventure in hopes of restoring the Dutch master's painting of A Lady Writing. Petra and Calder are in sixth grade, live in Chicago, and are pretty ordinary kids who both have gifts of keen observation. Calder uses patterns and pentominoes to work out all the possible answers or solutions to a puzzle. Petra uses her creative imagination to look beyond the face value of things and makes discoveries that would otherwise be missed. Guided in part by their teacher and in part by a book about unexplained phenomena, the two of them learn to question what others take for granted, what appears to be most obvious, and anything that catches their attention as unusual or unexpected. Knee deep in coincidences and far from accepting the overly-obvious, they learn not to accept without questions what seems to be the truth when they find they are able to scratch to a deeper level and discover nothing is as it seems. 

     Chasing Vermeer is excellent on many levels. The author weaves an intriguing mystery, and throughout it urges the reader to question the world around them and to ask questions. Subtly, we are led to believe in certain scenarios and begin suspecting characters, motives and actions, but in the end it's all overthrown and again the reader has to ask if they really see what they think they see, or instead what they want to see. The suspicion and doubt surrounding characters in this book disappear at the ending plot twist and we realize that the author has cleverly caught us in a trap of taking for granted what looks obvious, while the truth is so much more strange than we had imagined. The author begs readers to observe, question, and to not accept something without giving some thought about whether it's true. It was especially delightful that the author doesn't tell you how to ask and then supply the answers – she just tells you how to ask and gives some starter questions.

     The plot moved quickly, the story was clever, the writing was high quality, the message good. The author puts heavy emphasis on coincidence...or was it really coincidence?...and introduces readers to the fascinating world of understanding art. Unlike the glamour of being an art thief diminishing with the reality that it's all done for money, Chasing Vermeer suggests that the version of the world we're convinced we belong to is much less interesting that reality. We just need to keep our eyes open.

     Oh, and by the way, don't worry...I'm not a theif.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Dystopian Draw; or, This One is Not About a Book

Christians are not utopians. - John Stott, The Living Church

Sometimes I will come across a phrase or a sentence that neatly and compactly sums up something I've known all along, but never realized. My worldview and my tastes and my beliefs will already have moved me in a certain direction, but I haven't already given assent to a thought because it hasn't been brought to the front of my consciousness before. That tiny sentence by Stott is one such idea.

When I first read A Clockwork Orange I realized I was drawn to dystopian literature. It confused me at first. After all, A Clockwork Orange is a particularly forceful book with hardly a particle of light in it. But I'm a Christian – I should be drawn to the light and not the darkness. Should a book like A Clockwork Orange really fascinate me so much? I read 1984 – it was the same thing, only considerably less violent. The crumbled and dysfunctional worlds they portrayed didn't appeal to me, but the books and others in their genre provided a reality that seems so much more attainable than their antonymous utopian counterparts. It wasn't because I wanted a dystopian world, but because it seemed a great deal more real than any utopia ever could be.
And then Stott offhandedly provided the answer. It's because we live in a dystopia, and we know we do. There isn't any perfect society, and there never will be, not until Christ comes to us again. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, the last utopia vanished and the first human beings and all their descendents have since lived in a world that is filled with darkness, sin and sorrow.

And yet, God has created us to live in the world. In, but not of it, as salt and light. He doesn't call His children to hide out in little communities and try to avoid all the bad stuff out there and not let it affect us, but rather to work at changing the world, bringing the light of Christ into it. For us, unlike for Winston Smith, Alex, and the other protagonists, there is hope of a better world to come. There is rest at the end of a long journey, relief after pain, joy after much sorrow. For those who follow him, Christ brings comfort into the world.

These kind of books show us what we are capable of. They expose our fallenness in ways that dreamy stories of a more perfect society cannot. Without Christ there can be no perfect society. Dystopias give us a view of what life without Christ becomes, where a world lost in darkness flounders in all attempts at saving itself. As Christians, we should not watch the world descend into the darkness, but rather do what we can to follow Christ's call and carry light into it. We should be world-changers, not creating a present utopia but preaching of the one to come, the perfect existence in Christ.

So I think this is why dystopian literature draws me in. It shows me what the world is and can be, and calls me to do my part in changing that. Most of those books aren't calling for Christ, but Christ is what the world needs. The books are a call from outside for us to do our work as Christians.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Waiting for the Magic, by Patricia MacLachlan

     I am afraid – and it pains me to say it – this book just doesn't feel like MacLachlan. Maybe she's been moving in this direction and I just didn't know it...the most recent book I've read by her was Baby, published 19 years ago. But Baby, Journey, and the Sarah, Plain and Tall series all had something this book didn't. They each contained a story that dealt with loss, pain, and how people who share in mourning or rejoicing relate to each other. The older books do it in a way that does not talk down to kids, which is something I've always admired. And also, there are no machinations or devices to carry the plot along – the move on their own, carried by the spare writing and the heavy, but not heavily exposed, emotion.
     But in Waiting for the Magic...of all things...talking dogs! Not just dogs that look smart, or behave as though they had something to say. Talking dogs! And they were totally unnecessary. Will and Elinor's dad would still have come home and buckled down and been a responsible father and husband without the aid of four mismatched hounds sending thought waves to everyone in the family. The characters were good, true to original MacLachlan form, original and believable and dimensional. The four-year-old is bright but goofy, and the ten-year-old is reserved and reluctant to believe and to forgive. The parents are less interesting and immature – not, I suppose, atypical of real life.
     And then, did I mention this? There are four talking dogs. These dogs bring magic into the home and set the world to rights, and destroy the story. It might be good for a family to have a dog, it could bring a sort of common ground to people who are distraught, and serve to bring together children and parents in caring for this animal. But under no circumstances can a dog tell a person what color coat it wants, whether your mom is going to have a baby, and how to get your dad to straighten up and fly right. Dogs are not counsellors. They are not little furry angels doling out advice. They do not have some higher understanding that their owners are incapable of achieving without their assistance. They are just plain ol' dogs.
     What I enjoyed so much about MacLachlans' earlier works was the strength and resilience of the human spirit in her characters. They encountered great trials, and they overcame. They worked through things on their own, or with other characters, to get through the hard times and start enjoying the good times again. They had dignity and strength and worked hard and were able to make changes. Waiting for the Magic has very little in common with those books, and it's an unfortunate thing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz

"They call me Faithful Johannes because I have devoted my life to the Kings of Grimm. To helping them. To advising them. To under-standing them."
“Understanding them?” the young king asked.
“No, under-standing them. In the ancient sense of the word. Standing beneath them. Supporting them. Bearing their troubles and pains on my shoulders.”

Ah, yes. The Brothers Grimm. Some of my first, and favorite reading material. At the tender tiny age of six or seven I first began greedily reading the blood-filled books by the German fairy tale writers. I think my predilection for sad endings originates from the Grimm tales, where though some people live happily, there is still a larger ratio of unhappy denouements.
I perfectly understand the need for cleaned up versions of these stories, bedtime material for the less callous bookworms and reading encouragement for the small generations with less stomach – or perhaps it's just to assuage the fears of protective parents who fear their little darlings will grow up into murderers after being exposed to Cinderella's stepmother's gruesome end. I understand – and even under-stand, to a degree – the place that such unsullied stories hold.
But give me the gritty, unapologetic horrors of the original Grimm's tales.
A Tale Dark and Grimm does just that. Even before the first chapter is underway, the author warns that all the little children who shouldn't hear scary stories should now exit the room. Big kids, read on...this is what fairy tales used to be like. Fairy tales used to be awesome. Using six of Grimm's less-well-known stories, and interweaving them all with the same characters (twins Hansel and Gretel's troubles didn't stop with their murder of the Gingerbread Witch), Gidwitz presents a new audience with the darkest and grisliest of the Grimm tales. Frequently making interjections, the narrator reminds me of Lemony Snicket's mournful supplications to the reader to turn back, stop reading, this is too sad, too awful for you to bear. For a child with a shred of curiosity, this just urges them on to discover what could be so terrible.
The book crumbles a little in the final three chapters. I don't recognize the plot devices as anything from the brothers Grimm, though it may be drawn from them, and it gets a little weird when the kids who until now have been very clever and resourceful, pull together a very shabby plan to kill a dragon who is terrorizing the land. It ends with a happy family who have realized that though they may not always understand each other, they should always under-stand each other.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

People by Blexbolex

      The works of French comic artist and illustrator Blexbolex took a while to catch on, and his first creations were self-published. But in 2009, Blexbolex received a prize for “Best Book Design of the World” for his L'Imagier des gens (2008) at the Book Fair of Leipzig.
     People is not just a simple picture book. About 200 pages long, each page sports a simple, stylized portrait of various kinds of people, identifying each in bold blue letters – some of my favorites being Farmer, Explorer, Soloist, Hermit, Gypsy, and Sandwich-Board Man. The facing pages usually correspond somehow, as with Fisherman and Fishmonger, Movie Watcher and Movie Director, Corpse and Retiree. The colors are bright, the shapes are simple, and there is no story involved, but People is engaging and fun.
     I enjoyed every page and laughed over the subtle (or sometimes obvious) humor embedded in the pictures. Everyone is a sunburned shade of bright orangeish-pink, the Mermaid and the Nudist aren't wearing enough clothes, and there aren't any Librarians, Airplane Pilots, Archeologists, or Crazy Cat Ladies, but I thoroughly enjoyed People and wouldn't mind adding it to my groaning shelves if I ever happened upon a copy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rapunzel's Revenge

By Shannon and Dean Hale, Illustrated by Nathan Hale (Shannon and Dean are married - Nathan is no relation. So they say.)
 
First reading, I liked it. I enjoy a good fairy tale any time, whether in its most traditional form or wildly adapted, as long as it holds the story.
...As long as it holds the story. See, Revenge didn't do that. It began promisingly, with a little girl and her weird mother, (who, curiously enough, don't look anything alike), living behind a huge unscaleable stone wall. Beyond the wall is a wild-west landscape filled with thieves, outlaws, ranches and dusty towns. Red-headed and curious, Rapunzel escapes over the wall at the age of twelve, and in the brief few moments she is in the outside world, she discovers her 'mother' is a witch named Gothel, this witch rules the land with terrible tyranny through her magical vegitation production powers, Rapunzel was kidnapped as a tiny child when her real parents stole lettuces from Gothel, and Rapunzel's real mother works jut beyond the wall in Gothel's mines. What a miracle, finding her mother just like that and discovering everything she did! Gothel removes Rapunzel posthaste to a magic tree tower for a four-year time out to think about what she has done and how naughty she was to be defiant. Meanwhile, Rapunzel grows up and her hair grows yards and yards. Cue the prince, right?
Wrong. Rapunzel escapes (much like in the new Disney version, Tangled.) Then she meets the theiving rascal, Jack, who totes around his pet goose (who refuses to lay a single egg) and a special bean in his pocket. The two set out together to restore peace and order and growing things to the land and defeat Gothel. Through the rest of the story, Rapunzel is the hero, the one who rescues, the one who saves the day. Of course, she and Jack fall in love and everything ends up peachy.
 
This all reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend a long time ago about the movie Enchanted. She had the same problems with that movie as I have with this book. The fairy tale was corrupted, mostly by feminism - girls saving princes, cynisism overriding chivalry. Not that girls shouldn't be able to escape from wacky tree fort prisons, but this kind of fiction is not supposed to work that way. My friend was right when she objected to the way the classic fairy tale themes were turned upside down to market towards today's audiences. In Rapunzels' Revenge, wrong is still overcome by right, but right has taken on a new form. It doesn't fit the old fairytale standards anymore. Jacob and Wilhelm most likely are turning in their graves.
 
The graphic novel format of the book was its best quality. Oddly, it bears a lot of parallels to the movie Tangled (which I don't care to go into here.) It was published three years before the movie came out. There is a sequel, Calamity Jack.
 
Incidentally, Enchanted is and remains one of my favorite movies...for other reasons.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix


It's simply written, it's short, it's engaging, and it is good. I'm going to read the rest of the series.
Among the Hidden is set in a future, totalitarian America, where famines and draughts have led to strict government surveillance and the Population Law, restricting families to having only two children. But then there's Luke – his parents' third child. He's had to remain hidden his entire life, and no one besides his mother, father, and two brothers know he exists. The year Luke is twelve, the woods surrounding the family's farm is cut down for housing and the family that moves in next door also has a secret, hidden, third child. Luke escapes one day from his attic and meets Jen, and she introduces him to her secret world of higher class privileges, illegal potato chips, government propaganda, and an internet chat room she created for hidden children. Jen is fiercely dedicated to bringing justice and freedom to the hidden, and tries to convince Luke to go with her to a rally, a children's crusade against the Population Law.
Luke stays behind.
Jen is killed.
In the end, Jen's father helps him escape with a donated ID. (It works the same as an organ donation.)
There were two things I particularly appreciated in the book, and first was its pro-life stand. It presents a world where not only is it legal to dispose of unwanted children, it is required, and it is the government who makes that call. Luke, Jen, and the other hidden children are the primary characters, the ones we want to live and succeed, the ones we care about. Life is a word they frequently use and something they long to have. Second, the book encourages action. When Luke's fear keeps him from joining Jen's rally, he says, “Isn't there another choice?” Jen replies,
“Another choice. Another choice.” she paced, then jerked back to face Luke. “Sure. You can be a coward and hope someone else changes the world for you.”

Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

I should have known immediately from the rave reviews given by Booklist and ALA and School Library Journal that this book would be no good. But, I read it anyway, and learned the hard way – the book was no good. The writing style was, perhaps, a little better than a lot of the YA material out there, and there were some funny moments. Not laugh out loud funny, but smirk a little bit and then yawn funny. There was language, crudity, and some seriously creepy stuff – dead humans rebuilt into zombie warriors resembling Edward Scissorhands? A baby girl whose grandfather implanted a device into her brain that contained all his own experience and knowledge? A group of humans called Skinners who do just that – flay the skins off of their humanoid, slightly mutated enemies and fly them like banners throughout a future London? Really?
Finally, the book lacked any resolution. We follow Fever (the title character) as she leaves the place she was raised among emotionless scientists, learns about her mysterious background and begins experiencing strange memories (which we later discover belonged to her nonhuman grandfather), then finally learns who her parents were. And then there's an attack on London. And then the mayor of London and the attack leader have a fistfight. And then Fever's brain implant gets zapped and she stops having someone else's memories. And then she gets in a boat and leaves. And then she philosophically wonders who she really is and who she wants to be. The end.
I think the book was trying to portray war and prejudice in a negative light. There certainly was enough of both in the book - humans tried to destroy the superhuman mutants, and then the superhuman mutants retaliated and brought war against the humans. But that message was haphazard at best, unresolved, and so buried under the author's overimagined future world that it was obscured.

I didn't like it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dying to Meet You, by Kate and M. Sarah Klise

      I liked this book. It had a sweet old lady ghost in it. An old house with 32 ½ rooms. A selfish writer of children's books who didn't like children. A kid whose best friend is a ghost, and whose parents abandoned him and went on a lecture tour in Europe, set on proving ghosts don't exist. It's a delightful blend of amusing, grim, and silly. Being presented entirely through written correspondences between several characters and a few newspaper clippings, Dying has enough visual stimulation to attract distracted readers (it's rated for 3rd or 4th grade levels.) The mean old guy learns to love again, the kid gets a new sort of family, and the ghost receives recognition and acceptance.
     Also, the author and illustrator are sisters. Their website states that their mother read them to sleep every night, their father was a writer, and they started writing and illustrating together before their teens. They loved E. B. White, The Phantom Tollbooth, Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl, and Garth Williams. I heartily approve. 
     I wouldn't be surprised if I found myself picking up some more of the Klise's books to enjoy. Who says grown-ups in their 20's can't read little kid books? Little kid books are brilliant. Well, the brilliant ones are, anyway. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Introduction - Plus, City of Ember

     Once upon a time there was a girl who read a lot of books and wrote down what she thought about them. And sometimes she read really really dumb books, books way below her reading level (or interest), because her brother's place of employment, which was a bookstore, was looking for suggestions of young adult or children's books that were popular and not complete trash. So the girl thought, what the heck, all this reading, all this writing, all this world wide web, let's mash it together. So she did. That's all you get for explanation. Let's move along. 
 
The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau


     Wherein two youngsters aged 12 years who most 12-year-olds will have difficulty relating to improbably and unexpectedly find their way out of the city they live in. The boy, Doon, is intent on saving everyone from the inevitable darkness that will consume them when the city's generator dies and all the lights of Ember are forever extinguished. Lina isn't worried as much as Doon until she discovers the long-forgotten Instructions for Egress and realized they were meant all along to someday leave. The two children suddenly find themselves on the run from the authorities and are forced to escape using the Instructions, and after a float down the subterranean river, a climb towards the surface and a scramble through some tunnels, Surprise! The city you're from is underground, and there's a great big world up there!

      Charming enough. Written, I think, for a younger age than I was expecting. There is nothing to prevent a child of any age with an advanced enough reading level from enjoying this book. The only difficulty is that children do not like to be wiser than the book they are reading. It takes away the magic to discover mistakes, or see solutions to simple problems that the characters (thus, apparently, the author) have blindly missed. The book encourages good morals, however, and the children are not bratty or superior to their elders as is so often presented in children's books. I'd recommend it for precocious young readers.

Expect Nothing

     A friend of mine once said, as she was frosting Christmas cookies, "Keep your expectations low, and you'll never be disappointed." Well, I would not adopt that philosophy as applicable to all areas of life, but I have to say it's not a bad rule to follow in a general way. Take blogs, for instance. If I expect to become a blogging wonder, or if you expect to read many fascinating and informative posts, we both will soon be wanting our money back.
     The difficulty with the aforesaid phrase is that it can lead to a lack of effort or interest on the part of  those involved. I intend not to allow this negativity influence my writing, and I hope not to embarrass either the writer or reader with halfhearted babbling. And who knows? There's always the chance of being pleasantly surprised.