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.