Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Don't disturb the universe

What's the worst thing about having your kids participate in activities like cheerleading and girl scouts?  Yep, the darn cookie and chocolate and whatever-else fundraising sales.  You want to help out the team or organization – heck, you want to help your child!  But I always feel uncomfortable putting a sign-up out at work, especially if I'm not the first one.  I've had employers who've made it easier and banned such things, but that doesn't help the kids.  I guess they ought to go door-to-door and do the work themselves, but honestly, I'm not comfortable with that either and I'd rather just write a check and be done with it.

But take that amusing situation and superimpose it over a not-so-amusing story of intimidation and mob mentality, and you've got the idea behind Robert Cormier's gritty 1974 novel The Chocolate War.  Jerry Renault attends an all-boys Catholic school where the chocolate fund-raiser is practically a sacred tradition.  And when Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, he runs up against Brother Leon, the vice-principal, as well as Archie Costello, the manipulative leader behind a semi-secret student society called the Vigils. 

The Chocolate War is one of those books that's either praised for it's exploration of intimidation in social groups or challenged and banned for it's graphic language and portrayals of disturbing and sexist behavior by the boys – there's frequent talk of sex and the boys sexually objectify all women.  Sure, it's thought-provoking, and there's some interesting ideas and parallels going on – kind of like Lord of the Flies at a religious high school that's struggling economically. 

But while I found interesting and thoughtful aspects to the story, I wasn't impressed at all with the book.  First of all, the characters seem mostly unrealistic.  You've got kids pulling psychological strings and behaving in ways that I found completely unbelievable (some of the violence, however, is frighteningly believable).  I think Archie is 17 but he acts like a much older and smarter adult with a sickeningly sadistic streak.  And Brother Leon was another disturbing character – although, from what I could gather, the author was NOT anti-Catholic – quite the opposite, in fact.  But the worst is the language, and I'm not referring to the frequent profanity (although that's bad enough).  It's written with the "hard-boiled" style of the noir private detective stories – and the reader in the audio version really played it up.  Telephones "rupture the night" and dial-tones "explode" in your ear.  Characters always "thrust" themselves out of bed, usually with a "cold, hard ball of fury in [their] chest."  It's so over-the-top ridiculous that it made it even harder to take the story seriously. 

So, yeah – it's kind of interesting and it made me think a bit, but it's certainly not something I'd recommend to kids.  I probably wouldn't even recommend it to adults.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Judging books by their covers

Here's a little more of the YA books I've been reading and listening to lately, but for a slightly younger crowd:

Milo Pine and his parents run the Greenglass House, a place that has historically been used by smugglers and still attracts an interesting and not always lawful clientele.  Normally Milo has the place and his parents all to himself at Christmas, but this year they're surprised with an eclectic group of lodgers.  And when it turns out there's a thief among them, Milo decides to investigate and find the culprit.

I love love love the cover of Kate Milford's book – the artwork reminds me of books I read as a kid.  But it started very slowly for me, and I didn't get interested in the story until nearly halfway through.  In the end I honestly liked it, I just didn't love it.  First of all, time and place in the novel are very loose.  To me a smugglers inn lends itself to an earlier time period, yet it's set in a modern time (although no cell phones).  And the town of Nagspeake is fictional but very confusing as to where it might be located.  There's also a lot of talk about role-playing games and the dual-identity thing for Milo was kind of annoying (although I played a bit of D&D as a kid, it wasn't something that I felt any connection with).  Milford tries to tie the dual-identity theme to the idea that Milo was adopted by the Pines, but it felt flat to me.  The mystery of the story was what made it interesting, but too often a clue would pop up only to be immediately resolved.  There's plenty going on in the story but it never blended well for me (plus, one main character was kinda obvious).  Still, it wasn't a long read and it was kind of fun – even made me wish to spend Christmas time somewhere in the snow.

In Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, Hope Yancey leaves Brooklyn with her aunt Addie for Wisconsin where her aunt has accepted a job as a chef in a small town.  Hope has a lot of baggage – as nearly every single NYC young person in novels seems to have.  Her mother didn't want her and she never knew her father.  But she deals with it well and tries to make the best of every situation.  She's 16 years old and gets to work in the restaurant as a waitress – a job she takes very seriously.  But the owner of the restaurant is battling leukemia, so it's a surprise when he enters the political fray against a crooked mayor. 

The cover of the edition I listened to is a bit misleading.  It shows a car with a U-Haul trailer and NYC in the background.  And while Hope's life in Brooklyn provides a backdrop for the story, it's not a NYC story.  It's more about family relationships – dysfunctional and broken – and the ugly side of small town politics.  Yet it's also a very nice story, with a kind and likeable protagonist who is nicer and more positive than she has any reason to be and makes the best of her situation while longing for a father figure.  The reader of the audiobook made Hope sound much younger than 16 which is probably more in line with the intended middle grade audience.  It's kind of a teary-eyed ending, but it's a nice story.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Salt to the Sea

The narrative of history in America usually focuses on those parts most closely concerning us.  I guess this is natural, and my own reading is almost entirely focused around history that is somewhat connected to my own.  If you were to ask me about maritime disasters I'd probably mention the Titanic which it an iceberg (about 1,500 died) or the Lusitania which was sunk by a German submarine (about 1,200 died) and drew the U.S. into WWI.  I might also think about the USS Indianapolis which was torpedoed during WWII (about 1,200 died), and the story is sometimes featured on television during "Shark Week."  I wouldn't have mentioned or even known about the half dozen German ships sunk in the Baltic Sea by Russian submarines near the end of WWII, when approximately 25,000 died, including over 9,000 on one ship alone – half of which were children!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys tells the story of four young people among half a million refugees that were fleeing the advancing Russians as the German armies began to collapse.  Joanna is around 21 and from Lithuania, and is a skilled nurse.  Florian is from East Prussia and is around 18, and is a gifted artist.  Emilia is only 15 and from Poland, which makes her one of the 'lesser races' according to Hitler.  And Alfred is a doughy sailor aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship waiting to carry lucky refugees away from the barbaric Russian soldiers and to freedom.  Each, however, carries secrets – secrets that weigh heavily on them.

I'm not usually a fan of historical fiction – I find real facts mixed in with fiction confusing, but when I don't know that many facts to begin with, it's a lot easier to read.  And this was a very compelling story – told from each of the 4 perspectives in short alternating chapters.  Because each section is no more than a few pages at most, I often found myself reading more and more at each sitting, trying to find out what was happening.  One of the characters made me furious, but the others – and many of the peripheral characters – drew me into their collective stories.  It's the kind of story that readers who like historical fiction like The Nightingale will really enjoy.  And even though it highlights a lot of the suffering and tragedy of this time in history, it's a good read and a good story.  It's just one of those stories from the Eastern Front of WWII that I didn't know anything about.  (I rec'd an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top Ten for 2015

One thing I like about Goodreads is the ability to keep track of what I've read on multiple levels.  Not only do I mark off the books and rate them, but I can create "shelves" to categorize the different kinds of fiction, history, etc. that I read. 

I also really like the "stats" feature which says I read 81 books / 23,687 pages last year, although I think that includes some that I "did-not-finish" and some I marked as "reference" and therefore didn't entirely read, such as cookbooks.  The longest was Nicholas Nickleby at nearly 1,000 pages (and it felt like it!).  I gave an average of 3.5 stars in ratings (3 is "liked" and 4 is "really liked").

But for my Top Ten list I've picked books that stand out most in my memory, regardless of the rating.  Even though I re-read some favorites (Harry Potter) and loved some continuing series (How To Catch a Bogle and Lockwood & Co.), I've chosen not to include them on this list.  So, here it is (in no special order except that 5 stars are before 4 stars) with links to my reviews:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter

I’m a sucker for almost anything by Gary D. Schmidt. Other than First Boy, which I thought was kind of lame (and never bothered to review), I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by him. Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy and Okay For Now were both amazing, but my favorite was The Wednesday Wars. When I finished I wanted to shout "Chrysanthemum!" (If you’ve read it, you’ll understand.)

Schmidt's latest book, Orbiting Jupiter, is a little closer to Lizzie Bright in tone, except with a modern setting and situation. Jack, a 12 year old boy, lives with his parents on a farm in New Hampshire, and they’ve just taken in a troubled 14 year old boy named Joseph. Joseph got into some trouble that landed him in a youth correctional facility where he tried to strangle a teacher. But Joseph’s troubles surround his daughter – yes, Joseph became a father at 13. Her name is Jupiter and he’s never seen her, but he desperately wants to!

My fear was that Schmidt was trying to write 'John Green' – you know, the troubled and damaged young person(s) yearning for understanding and validation? But Schmidt handle’s a potentially touchy topic with perfect tact; the book never becomes maudlin or mushy and avoids the crassness and foul language that peppers so much of YA these days. And his writing is perfectly beautiful, almost poetic.
“Sometimes miracles are all around you... Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess - but I've never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them.”
But with Schmidt it’s all about the characters. You can’t help but LOVE Jack and Joseph, Jack’s parents, several of the more understanding teachers at school, and even the cows! This is a short book but the reader is drawn into it at light speed (I nearly read it in a single sitting). A warning, however: Schmidt is not one to write a pat ending where everything works out perfectly. Instead, he mixes the bitter and the sweet in a way that the rest of my family never finds entirely satisfying, and you might want a box of tissues handy. For me, the ending kind of wilted the ‘Chrysanthemums!’ I was about to offer. But it's still a very good book. (I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"The dreams in which I'm dying..."

I've always loved music, but growing up in the early 80s I especially loved new wave.  I still remember liking the sound of "Cars" by Gary Numan when it was new in 1979.  In fact, it was the 'different' songs like "Pop Music" by M and "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls that really resonated with me, and I got used to the 'are-you-kidding-me?' reactions from others.  Even though new wave was very popular where I grew up, most of my friends listened to rock and pop music so I always felt like I was on the musical outskirts.  I guess I still feel that way.
"In the U.K.... new wave was initially code adopted by journalists and disc jockeys eager to be perceived as cool but too nervous to actually use the word 'punk' with all its threatening implications. In America, new wave was an umbrella the size of a circus tent. It covered synth pop, ska, goth, alternative rock, bubblegum, Eurodance, industrial, new romantic, blue-eyed U.K. soul, and electronic dance music. It was a Tower of Babel populated by American bands who wanted to be British, British bands who wanted to be German, and German bands who wanted to be robots. It was an insane asylum whose patients were predominantly ambiguous, untouchable males with sucked-in cheeks, 3-D makeup, and wedding-cake hair."
Seldom have I laughed as much as while reading Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein.  I didn't have MTV at home so I didn't know a lot about the bands I loved – and I was surprised at the HUGE EGOs many of the new wave "artists" had – Limahl of Kajagoogoo and especially Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen – particularly considering their relatively modest popular success.  Some really saw themselves as "artists," and sometimes eschewed the popularity that came, while others actively and determinedly pursued it (Duran Duran).  And there was no shortage of competition and jealousy among them:
Curt Smith, Tears for Fears: 'People say, ‘music’s not what it used to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ Most of the stuff we listened to sucked. What you remember is the really good stuff. But there was a ton of crap in the 80s. For every one of us, there was a Flock of Seagulls.'
Mike Score, A Flock of Seagulls: 'The word that springs to mind is jealousy. Curt Smith may be living in a little fantasyland that Tears for Fears was something spectacular.'
The book is made of edited interviews with 3 dozen new wave bands.  It's got a little history of each band (as well as a 'where-are-they-now' follow up) and focuses on an important song.  But it's all the little bits of info that I found so interesting, like how Mike Score of A Flock of Seagulls got his iconic hairdo, or Adam Ant giving fashion tips to Michael Jackson (the famous red hussar jacket), and how OMD drove an old car with mushrooms growing in the floor even while their songs were at the top of the charts because of the evil record companies. The only band profiled that I didn't know was The Normal, and the only other band I don't have any music from in my collection was Joy Division (I'm more of a New Order fan).  Still, the book sent me scurrying to listen to songs I somehow missed – like "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam Ant and "Being Boiled" by the Human League – and digging out CDs I haven't listened to in a while (New Order).  Not all the chapters were interesting – ABC, Spandau Ballet, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and even Howard Jones (whose music I LOVE) – but I had so much fun reading it and wish there was a follow-up with more bands.  Just a few of the highlights for me (mostly paraphrased rather than quoted in full):
  • Peter Hook of New Order: 'Musically, I love Adam and the Ants. They’re one of my favorite groups. But it was very difficult for me as a Northern male to relate to the dandy look. We would’ve been laughed out of Manchester had we even considered it. Bernard [Sumner] and I used to go out in London with all them lot… We looked like working-class yobs, and everyone else was dressed up as a pirate.'
  • Kim Wilde: 'When it was a hit in America, they were like, 'Why East California'? Why not all the way over to the west? I was trying to come up with any excuse why my dad might have written 'to East California,' and if you ask, he'll just say 'Cause it sounded better'... When I feel self-conscious about saying 'New York to East California,' I think of The Police singing 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,' and I don't feel so bad.'
  • Andy Rourke, The Smiths: 'Morrissey used to buy his – I was going to say 'shirts,' but they were actually blouses – from a clothing place for fat women in Manchester. These women's blouses that nobody wanted became Morrissey's trademark. He used to like tearing them up and throwing them into the crowd.'
  • Midge Ure: 'People consume music in a very different way. It doesn't seem to be as all-important as it used to be for us. Kids have got computer games and a million other things to keep themselves entertained. We had music and our imaginations, and that was it.'

Monday, December 7, 2015

Just thirty seconds

Last summer I was able to visit a place I've wanted to see for a long time: Pearl Harbor.  I think my wife and kids were a little bored by it, but I appreciated seeing a place that was so important to 20th century American history.  And while the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a demoralizing shock for the American people, I'd like to talk about the response that came less than six months later.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle, American bombers staged a daring raid on the Japanese mainland that came as a complete surprise – to both Japan and America. If you've seen the movie Pearl Harbor, you might remember the Doolittle Raid at the end, which is a bit dramatized but not so far off. But what it doesn't convey is the huge impact such a small raid had on the war. The Japanese went from "fearless to fearful," their sense of isolated security and racial superiority suddenly threatened, and Americans realized they were still in the fight.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the account of one of the pilots of those bombers, Capt. Ted Lawson, that implausibly took off from aircraft carriers. They had to take off much further from Japan than planned due to their sighting by a small monitoring ship (which was sunk) and didn't have enough fuel to fly to safe bases within China. The planes nonetheless completed their bombing missions – a pin prick, really – then made their way the best they could to the coast of China. Most planes crash landed and Lawson and his crew were severely injured (Lawson's leg had to be amputated). Spread out along the coast, only a few were captured by the Japanese but most managed, with a great deal of hardship and the self-sacrificing help of the oppressed Chinese, to escape and return to America.

I found the book much better written than I had expected and it caused me to cringe numerous times as I read what the crew went through in their ordeal. First-hand accounts are valuable, but can be limited in scope and even self-serving, but Captain Lawson's account is very well done. It's a short and easy read that gives the reader an insight into what went into such a daring raid.  (Winston Groom's recent book gives an excellent explanation of just how important for morale this incident was – and he even gives it a great deal of credit for turning the tide of the war.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Listening to the holidays

I probably should have posted this a couple months ago, but here are a few short audiobooks I enjoyed last year – and am listening to again this year – with holiday-themed stories.

Halloween is already past, but one of my favorite spooky movies to watch with the kids is the 1949 Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow narrated by Bing Crosby.  My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Spjute, probably showed it to us five or six times, and I still enjoy watching it each year.  Written by Washington Irving in 1820, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has Ichabod Crane, the superstitious new school teacher in the little hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, falling for the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, while making an enemy of the dashing local hero, Brom Bones.  As he returns home late one night from a harvest party, he runs into the ghostly Headless Horseman.  Even though the book is short, it's not the easiest to read simply because it's written in a narrative style (ie. someone telling a story) and contains no dialogue.  But read by Tom Mison – the Ichabod of the television series – it's a very enjoyable listen (especially for all the women who think he's sooo handsome).

Christmas Eve, 1914 by Charles Olivier is a very nice dramatization of the so-called "Christmas Truce" in the early part of WWI.  It's portrayed through a letter written after the war by an officer but with the live-action-memories happening at the same time.  The focus of the story is on the lead-up to the actual "cease-fire," the different personalities in the British trenches, and the awful waste of life in war.  I thought the audio version did a great job of heightening the tension that must have been felt when the enemy approached with the request for a cease-fire.  I don't know that it's meant to be historically accurate – with the planned British offensive for Christmas day and all – but it was very nicely acted out and worth listening to.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is another favorite for the holidays, and I've enjoyed getting together with friends and family in years past to read it on a Sunday afternoon and evening.  It's the well-known story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly old man who has a change of heart when visited by several ghosts on Christmas Eve.  Tim Curry (who – interestingly enough! – played Pennywise in Stephen King's It) reads this version.  His voice is sometimes a little too rummy and muddled to be understood perfectly, but he does a very good job of reading this timeless story. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

If anyone asks, just lie

I've been listening to a lot of audio YA lately and I'd like to recommend a book.  Here's the problem: I can't really say much about it without spoiling it.  It's called We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.  I guess I can tell you that the main character's name is Cadence and she goes by Cady.  She comes from a very wealthy East Coast family, and spends summers on her grandfather's island off the Massachusetts coast.  Something happened a couple years earlier... but I don't want to say much about that.  The ending is kind of a surprise and it reminded me a lot of... no, I can't say that, either.  Ummm...

Well, I guess I'll just say it was a very popular YA book last year and most people either loved it or hated it.  I liked it, although the way the suspense is drawn out was kind of uncomfortable.  But I quickly became hooked and couldn't stop listening.  The Los Angeles Times said it was "a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help."  If all that vagueness sounds remotely interesting to you, I strongly suggest you not go looking for much information – the Times article is pretty good but too many reviews have spoilers, which you'll want to avoid if you hope to enjoy the book.  Profanity was much less than some books I've read lately.

Another interesting YA book, although I'm not so sure how much I'd recommend it, was Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King.  It's about Lucky Linderman, a smallish fifteen-year old who seems to be a favorite target of the town bully, Nader McMillan.  He tries to tell adults about the bullying, but no one really listens.  He gets in trouble when his school project tries to survey students on how they would commit suicide if they were considering it.  His parents are concerned but disconnected – his dad withdraws into work and cooking while his mom swims more and more laps at the community pool – and even school counselors give him a hard time.  Lucky's only escape is in his dreams when he visits his grandfather who never returned from the Vietnam War.

First of all, my lukewarm endorsement of the book is due to the profanity and crassness, which is pretty bad (and disappointing to hear coming from the reader, Kirby Heyborne, whom I really like).  Also, some characters and a few situations felt overly cliché, and most of the adults are buttheads, but that's typical of much YA fiction.  But, it's also a very compelling story and I couldn't stop listening.  Lucky draws the reader's sympathy without being self-pitying – King does a very good job in that regard.  It's an interesting story about the regular problems of adolescence for a mostly timid kid, but overlaid with the POW/MIA issue and just a touch of magical realism in his dreams.  And I actually kind of liked it. 

So, for what it's worth, those are my recommendations – with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Foul-mouthed kids

I've always loved to read, but while I was finishing up my degrees – mostly part-time at night – all I had time for is what teachers assigned me to read.  So, when I finished school and could read what I wanted, I read a lot of bestseller stuff I'd missed like Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz.  And, of course, Stephen King.

Stephen King is the guy responsible for many of the horror movies probably since before I was a teenager, either directly or indirectly.  And (even though most of the movies are pretty bad) he can be an amazing storyteller!  Books like The Dark Half and Needful Things still creep me out, and there's few things scarier than Pennywise the Clown.  The problem – for me, anyway – is the vulgarity and profanity; it's pretty far beyond 'over-the-top.'  In his On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft – which is one of my favorite books – he says that's what makes a story authentic.  And I know some people talk that way and aren't bothered by it.  But I am.  I don't talk that way.  Most people I associate with don't talk that way, at least not around me.  And it feels degrading and even burdensome to hear or read, and that's why I haven't read a SK novel in over fifteen years.  Well... until now.

Probably my favorite SK book-turned-movie is "Stand By Me."  It's not a horror movie, although the language and the theme were still enough to get it an R rating.  It's from a novella called The Body and tells the story of four 12 year old friends growing up in Maine who find out about a dead body – a kid their age named Ray Brower who went missing.  Apparently, he got hit by a train, and the four friends go on a camping trip to see his body.  They have some juvenile and half-formed ideas that they'll get their pictures in the paper and be heroes, but the story is mostly about their relationships, problems, and the journey. 

And it's an incredible story if you were once a boy and appreciate a somewhat nostalgic setting.  Something about it just resonates – the friendships, the thoughts and ideas, the quest – and makes for a very compelling story.  Of course, there's the language, which is beyond coarse (and a stupid "Chico" story that I didn't quite follow how it was necessary to the larger story – probably just tacked in to add length).  But I remember how boys are, and I might have deserved having my mouth washed out on a few occasions.  But I'd guess somewhere around 95% of the foul language could have been cut and still gotten the message across.  Stephen King would no doubt disagree, but he and I can disagree on that point.

Still, if you can overlook that, it's a darn good story.