Monday, January 22, 2007

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce & Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Two more pieces of juvenile literature I've read over the past week or so. I'm sure my reading won't be nearly so prolific once the real schoolwork begins in earnest, and once the second class kicks in on February 17, but in the meantime, yahoo, I'm a-readin'...

Framed by Boyce: One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby. I've read everything he's written - even the essays which is saying something because I never read essays. Anyway, I'm starting this post with that fact because Boyce is as close as I've ever come to a children's writer that reads like Nick Hornby for kids. It's all there - the slightly exotic British slang, the hip irony, the pop culture references, the humor, the human touch. The basics of the story: Dylan lives in Wales, where his family lives at and operates the Snowdonia Oasis, which is a kind of convenience store, gas station, and auto repair shop. The town they live in is the rainiest in all of Wales, has no jobs, and is slowly dying. Dylan is literally the only boy in his school (leading to funny teacher comments like "Now girls - - and Dylan.."). Then one day a series of mysterious vans arrive and drive up the mountain to the abandoned slate mine. Soon enough it is discovered that due to flooding in London, the entire collection of the National Gallery has been moved to the old mine in Manod for the duration, just as it was during WW2, to avoid Nazi bombs (the storage of the paintings in a mine in Wales during WW2 actually happened). Unexpectedly, the artwork seen by the villagers awakens feelings and ideas they never knew they had. The financial troubles of the family also give rise to a couple of attempted crimes that push the plot along. This is a good book - it is funny, the story is touching, the child at the center is appealing. I love that this boy lives literally at the end of the dead end street in a dead end town with nothing to do all day and no one to do it with, but can't understand why people don't realize how really fantastic his hometown is. The problem is I think it is about 30-50 pages TOO LONG. Somehow, the story just ran out of steam for me, and even though I had enjoyed it, I found myself struggling to finish. I'm not sure if kids would stick with it...

Gregor the Overlander (and subsequent Gregor books) by Suzanne Collins - Boy, I'm late to the party on this one - she's already on book four of the series, and I think book five comes out in spring 2007.... I decided to pick this book up because so many people in the children's department told me they loved it. The premise of the book is that Gregor is an 11 year old boy (why are they ALWAYS 11?) living in New York City whose father has been missing for 2 years. As the eldest, he shares many of the burdens of caring for his family with his mother, who struggles to make ends meet. One day while doing laundry in his apartment building laundry room and watching his toddler sister "Boots," he sees her sucked down into a ventilation grate. Gregor follows, and before you can say "I don't think we're in Kansas" he finds himself deep below the earth, where a group of humans has coexisted with giant talking insects, rats, and bats for several hundred years. The humans have been at war with the rats for the entire time they've lived in the Underworld, with alliances shifting among the other creatures. Before you can say "series fiction rules" Gregor and Boots have been pulled into an adventure that seems to be tied into the prophecies written by the founder of the underworld colony of humans. This is a good series - well paced, pretty well written, and not too derivative of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and with no time travel, which is something of a miracle in fantasy fiction for children these days. The later books in the series might be a bit intense for strong readers who are younger, but I think readers from about 5th grade up would be able to handle the themes of violence and redemption. My only quibble with the books really is that I hate the fact that the title character starts every conversation with the word "Hey." As in "Hey, so and so. Blah blah bla..." That beginning "Hey" really bugs me for some reason. That aside, this is solid fantasy that is a cut above much of what is out there right now.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

The last book club book I've managed to advance read before classes started for the Spring semester! Ehrenreich is a writer who has written for many prestigious periodicals, and written several books. For this book, Ehrenreich crafted the persona of a divorced woman whose children have grown, and who is entering the workforce after a divorce. She shortened the number of years of college on her resume to 3, but did her best not to "impersonate" another person. She then tried to survive in three different areas of the country on a waitress/housecleaner/retail clerk's pay for a month. She allowed herself a car, and a little seed money in each case, but for the most part relied on her earnings to buy food and lodging. The "experiment" was conducted in the late nineties.

Wow, holy cow, this book depressed the hell out of me, not to mention scaring me half to death. Let's put some context around this. I am a parent of two boys aged 9 and 6. I recently made the decision to leave my relatively well-paid career in market research to pursue a master's in library science, with the goal of becoming a school librarian (or School Library Media Specialist to use the official language). I was starting to hate market research, and I really do believe this is the course for me, but it will take me 2 years to get the degree, and meanwhile I have become a "net funds user" in the household, rather than a "net funds earner." I work for almost nothing an hour in a public library, where the hours fit my family and school obligations, but let's just say I practically have to work a week just to get my hair done. Now, we're relatively comfortable - my spouse makes a good living (though not princely) and we have adequate life insurance and a good cushion in retirement plans if something happened - but this book made me realize that if things went badly, I could be in big trouble. OK, it would have to be several bad things at once, but not outside the realm of possibility. This book showed me just how possible it is to be trapped by circumstance into a really hopeless position, and just how ground down someone can get. It is depressing because who knows what could be done to fix the situation. It is an interesting study to see how a class that is only slightly less "ground down" (the assistant managers at Wal-Mart, the restaurant manager, etc.) are manipulated/used to be the force grinding on those below them. This is an eye-opening book, but not one you want to read if you're a social conservative! Might be a great book to give to a kid who won't go to college, or who thinks they can make good money if they drop out of high school!

Here's a link to Ehrenreich's website if you want to read more depressing stories about people not getting by on the wages paid to the working poor.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress

Another book club book! During the cultural revolution, two young men are sent to a rural village for re-education. There, they manage to get hold of some Chinese translations of several classics of French literature by Dumas, Balzac and others. They mesmerize villagers re-telling the tale, and one of them is the "Little Seamstress" of the title. The books, ironically I'm sure I'm to feel, bring some degree of freedom to everyone but the young men who first find them.

Phew.... I can only attribute the fuss over this book to people who read it in its original language, or maybe I just don't "get" Chinese literature. I didn't much like Waiting by Ha Jin either, and that was a widely acclaimed book. At least Waiting had characters who felt at least somewhat fleshed out. I felt the characters in this book were quite flat, with the "Little Seamstress" the least fleshed out of the bunch. The book was more like a series of vignettes than a story that hung together, and I didn't feel like any of the characters, even the narrator, rose above sketches of personality types. As for the Little Seamstress; people may see her as strong, but she felt more like a male fantasy icon to me - the intelligent, yet untutored and untamed peasant girl who is sexually pliant to her intellectually "superior" male, yet who will run away from her tutor as soon as she gets a veneer of polish, in search of greater accomplishment. I didn't hate this book, but I didn't particularly like it either.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Peace Like A River and Cold Sassy Tree

Ok, so these are two books I've read for my book club. I had read Cold Sassy before, several years ago. Set in 1906 Georgia, it's a quasi-coming of age story about a boy who lives in a comfortably middle class family living in small town Georgia. When his father decides to wed the milliner in his store a scant three weeks after the death of his first wife, scandal and gossip ensue. I didn't like Cold Sassy as well this time around, or at least as well as I remember liking it when I read it the first time. I found it rather disturbing really. Perhaps the first time I read it I hadn't read quite so many novels that dwelled on Southern "colorful characters." It's a genre I've grown a bit tired of in the past few years. I've told others in my book club that they have to suspend their modern sensibilities when they read, and try to read from the perspective of someone contemporary to the time being written about, and I've derided books that give too modern a sensibility to historical time periods or characters (ever noticed how the main characters in historical romances bathe?), but the cozy Jim Crow view of the south - with just a few sops to discomfort over the treatment of blacks and poor whites - made me feel vaguely sick. I'm not sure if that was the author's intent, or if she really was as nostalgic for those times as she seemed. I'll have to wait and see what others think on that question. All in all, however, for style and readability, you can't really do better than this book if you like the genre. I'd rather read it again than The Secret Life of Bees, for sure.

Peace Like A River I liked quite a lot. It's the story of a family that lives on the edge of economic and social viability in a Minnesota town, who find their lives torn apart when the oldest son commits a crime and goes on the run. For me this book wasn't great or high literature, but it reminded me of the sort of Norman McLean/Wallace Stegner genre that I like almost in spite of myself. In a funny way, it is much like Cold Sassy, with its almost rosy view of "simple-folk" living life in a small town. What I liked best about this book was its depiction of faith. It was nice to see a character who has a deep and abiding faith who isn't depicted as being hidebound, hypocritical, or even downright evil. I think we've fallen into a pattern in modern serious literature where religious faith has become shorthand for the hypocrite, or even active evil (see Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible for a prime example). It was good to see the father in this book portrayed as a deeply faithful man who tried to live his life through his faith, and who was a truly good man. What I didn't like about the book was the ending, which struck me as false. I can't believe Davy was stupid enough to think he could bring the girl to his family's home and not have his fellow fugitive follow. Overall, this is a worthwhile read, and the style and writing are really very beautiful.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Peter Pan in Scarlet

OK, so I admit that the original Peter Pan is one of my favorite books of all time, and I'll also admit that I just couldn't get into the Dave Barry "prequel" to Peter Pan (though I generally like Dave Barry). I also don't care too much for the Disney Peter Pan, which to my mind took the edge off that rather bad and dangerous boy, and made childhood entirely too sweet and light. My favorite thing about Barrie's Peter Pan is that the children are sometimes savage and self-centered along with being cute and brave. Barrie showed us children before living rounded the edges and taught them to hide the raging ego within. Anyway, this all made me approach Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean with trepidation, but I'm happy to report that I think the author did a good job of reporting from the childhood front. Her kids are a nice mix of appealing and sometimes shockingly selfish and thoughtless. So here's the low-down: The Darlings (except for Michael, who was "lost" in WWI) and the Lost Boys are all grown up now. Tootles is a judge and Slightly is a famous musician, and Wendy is a supremely sensible mother who attends committee meetings. They all start dreaming of Neverland, waking up in warpaint, or with pistols under their pillows. Through the magic of capturing the fairy born in a baby's first laugh and putting on the clothes of their own children, they manage to retreat into childhood and fly to Neverland, where they find the land in peril. Danger and adventure ensue.

Now I like to assess children's books by whether I think children will really like them or if adults think children *should* like them. I'm not a big fan of books that adults think children *should* like - either the moralizing ones (ugh - I hate the Berenstain Bears) or those that appeal to parents who love books like House of Sand and Fog (are you listening The Book Thief?) I'm not entirely sure about this one.... I know I liked it enormously for myself, and I think children will like it, even if they've never been exposed to the slightly twisted world of Barrie's Peter Pan. The chapters are just short enough, and generally end in a cliffhanger that will keep them reading. Those who haven't read the original might have a little trouble at first with the characters, as the Lost Boys (one of whom delightfully becomes a little lost girl as the only available clothes to send him back to childhood belong to his daughter) have a more prominent place in the action in this book, but I think they may still find it a good read, even if they don't know/remember each Lost Boy specifically. So all in all I would say this was quite a good book, and worth reading, and would appeal to children from about 3rd to 6th grade, or to anyone who loves that slightly twisted Barrie Peter Pan world.

Here's some info on the book:

Why I'm Blogging

I've decided to start this blog to keep track of the books I've read and what I thought of them, and also to record the random thoughts I have that I never write down cause I'm just too lazy to do it. Now, since I work in a children's department at a public library, much of what I read is children's lit, but I will mix in the adult books I read as well. I've always resisted writing in a journal because for one, my hand gets tired, and for two, well, I've always suspected that I am deep down, a pretty boring person. So here goes, let's see if I can keep this thing going.