Friday, March 27, 2009

Some cool chicks

I love chickens. I have this dream of owning some land with a beautiful farm house, a barn, and a chicken coop. This is ridiculous, really, because my grandmother had chickens and when she went looking for a grandchild to collect eggs, I'd hide. Those little monsters pecked my legs and the rooster would rush me like some demonic creature out to banish me from his domain! So my dream of owning chickens really comes with the requirement that my husband take care of the little beasties. I love chickens from a distance and preferably just in picture books.

Speaking of such books, I have found a beautiful trio of chicken-related picture books that I'd like to endorse for you. Ever read Simms Taback's picture books, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat or There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly? Those books are pure genius, with holes cut through the pages that act as foreshadowing to the story. First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger falls in that same category of imaginative picture book construction, though not to the degree of Taback's books. And, having preluded this post as some sort of chicken-only picture book review, it actually has a bunch of other non-chicken related things in it. First the egg, then the chicken, first the seed, then the plant and on and on. It was cute, beautifully painted, cleverly designed, and kept my two-year-old riveted. This is a new standard by which I grade books, by the way. If a book is boring, she won't put up with it. There was no waffling about which came first, the chicken or the egg, either. Seeger just makes it go both ways.

I'm not so snobbish that I insist that all picture books be drawn, painted, collaged or some other such thing, but I don't really like photography-based picture books. "Meh" is what I usually say, but I read somewhere that Tillie Lays an Egg by Terry Golson was a worthy read. My kids loved trying to discover on each page where Tillie, that crazy hen, had laid her egg each day. My favorite part was reading at the end that the author owned everything that was photographed, minus a red pickup truck, and that each of those chickens had their own personalities and characters. My dream of owning my farm doubled after reading it to my kids and their own nearly constant pleas for animals didn't lessen any either. If my farm would look like those pictures and I could have such personable hens, I don't know how I could resist.

I saved the best for last. Kate DiCamillo, author of amazing junior chapter books such as The Tale of Despereaux, Tiger Rising, and Because of Winn-Dixie wrote Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken. She has only written two picture books, but if is what I can expect, I hope she does a dozen more. To make it even better, Harry Bliss illustrated Louise and his illustrations in Diary of a Worm and Diary of a Spider make me happy. Dare I say, blissfully happy? Oh, stop groaning, it was funny. Anyway, Louise is a chicken who decides she is ready for adventure outside of the farm. First, she goes to sea and escapes being captured by pirates who are busy arguing over how best to cook her up. Then, she runs away to the circus that comes to town and narrowly misses being snatched by a lion when she falls from the high wire. Last adventure of all, she travels far away to a bazaar where she is captured, imprisoned with other chickens, rallies them to escape and travels by camel, boat and hot air balloon to return home to her beloved sister chickens. After each adventure, she sleeps the deep and dreamless sleep of the true adventurer.

I keep arguing with myself over what is better, the story or the pictures. I think it's a draw because they are equally amazing. I loved the language, how DiCamillo can make our own hearts pound with excitement, even as Louise anticipates her true adventures beginning. I loved the crashing waves of the sea, the pages where Louise was on the high wire and how the illustrations are turned vertically so you get a sense of vertigo with how high she is. Man, everything is so good!

In all, you can't run a-fowl with any of these books. What is with me and the puns? They are egg-stremely annoying. I'll stop now. Be warned, however, that reading any of these will give you an itching to buy a chicken coop and some beautiful snowy white hens to hide their eggs and disappear on occasion to join the circus.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Kite Runner

Two books about Afghanistan and Pakistan in three months? If I'm not careful, I'm actually going to learn something about that troubled and enigmatic part of the world. Recently I asked a friend what she thought of The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, and without hesitation she blurted out, "It's horrible!" She immediately qualified that statement, saying that while the graphic violence was difficult to deal with, it was very moving and is the kind of book that stays with you for years to come.

Now that I've read it, I know why her response was so mixed. It is horrible. But not in a gratuitous kind of way that makes you doubt the author's humanity. In fact, it is a very human book dealing with themes of filial love, compassion, redemption, forgiveness, cultural identity, and how the horrors of war strip away humanity and leave both the aggressors and the victims living like animals.

Much of the story is told as a flashback. Amir is a wealthy Afghan boy who has a confused friendship with a servant boy of lesser ethnic status, Hassan. When Amir watches Hassan get brutally attacked and doesn't intervene, he is filled with guilt and devises a cruel plan to drive away Hassan as a way to escape his own self-loathing. His selfish cowardice continues to haunt him years later as he and his father escape Russian-occupied Afghanistan and build a new life in America. Amir is finally forced to face the demons from his past (both figurative and literal) when he returns to Afghanistan under the Taliban's regime many years later. He tries to atone for his past mistakes by rescuing Hassan's only child, but soon finds that as complicated as it is to physically save the boy, emotional and spiritual rescue will be even more difficult.

This is a very brief synopsis of a mutli-layered story featuring complex characters and how they respond to the end of the world as they know it. It is a somber story punctuated by moments of joy, courage, and deep love. It provides an interesting look into a culture with rich heritage and strong traditions, and evokes compassion for those who suffer at the hands of evil all over the world. And it explores universal themes that lie at the very core of what it means to be human.

Is it horrible? Yes. In some ways, it is one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. But it is also beautiful and painful and ultimately hopeful, and therefore one of the most moving books I've ever read too. Don't take it on lightly, for it will not treat you gently as a reader. But when it's finished with you, you will be more compassionate, more attuned to suffering, and hopefully....more human.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Magic Street

Picking up an Orson Scott Card novel is like meeting up with an old friend. No matter how much things may have changed, there's a familiarity that immediately sets me at ease. His characters have a distinctive Card flavor (smart, clever, sarcastic, and vulnerable), which is reassuring, but can also be somewhat limiting. I've wondered at times if he is capable of breaking out of his own Card-ness and creating characters that weren't all variations of his standard template (Ender Wiggin in my opinion, but maybe that's just because that was my first introduction to his work).

And then came Magic Street, and my good opinion of Orson Scott Card's talents got new life. Not only was the story imaginative and unpredictable, but the characters were a complete -- and refreshing -- departure from typical Card fare. Magic Street is a fantasy set in contemporary Los Angeles that merges the unlikely worlds of an upper middle class black neighborhood with a bizarre Fairyland (a conglomeration of fairy tales and fairy superstitions around the world, but most heavily represented in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream). Puck appears as a homeless old Bag Man, and Queen Mab is a motorcycle riding babe with attitude who goes by Yo Yo. The juxtaposition of gritty reality and fanciful fairies could easily have failed in the hands of a less skilled author, but Card makes it believable and wondrous at the same time.

The central figure is Mack Street, a boy who was found abandoned as a baby and raised primarily by an older single woman, and also partly by all the families in the neighborhood who love him for his goodness and lack of guile. He has unusual abilities, including being able to see people's deepest desires. When their dreams start coming true in cruel, twisted ways, he becomes concerned with figuring out who he is and how to stop the evil things happening to the people he loves. Eventually he learns that his life is more affected by Oberon and Queen Mab than he could have ever imagined and in order to save the world he knows, he must throw himself fully into their epic conflict.

In true Orson Scott Card style, there is an abundance of page-turning action. But what impressed me the most was how original and convincing his characters were. I am not an upper middle class African American who battles race issues as part of my identity, so maybe I'm not the best judge. But I thought he did a fantastic job of getting into the lives and heads of people whose background is so unlike his own, and portraying them in sympathetic and genuine ways. It's an ambitious attempt, and one that Card pulls off very well. In the process he creates some memorable characters whom the reader can't help but fall in love with and see their adventure through to its beautiful, bitter-sweet conclusion.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Alcatraz's adventures

Bet you didn't know that the world was secretly controlled by a cult of power-hungry evil Librarians. I didn't either until I read Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians and Alcatraz versus the Scrivener's Bones. I can no longer turn a blind eye to the evil doings of those nefarious fiends and their dire plots to change the world as we know it. Alcatraz has shown me the light and since the books are riddled with his editorializing and explanations and outright lies, I'm going to attempt to take his word for it despite what he says.

Or maybe not. I do like librarians and have often thought maybe I should have become a children's librarian, just so I could read books all day and plan story times and get my greedy hands on every new book that comes through the door before anybody else. But Alcatraz is adamant that Librarians (with a capital L) are indeed villains who have changed history and redrawn the map of the world. So far, they've only taken over North America and Europe, but they're working on the rest of the world.

Alcatraz Smedry is blissfully unaware of the state of things until his inheritance from his long-lost parents shows up at his door on his 13th birthday: a package of sand with a cryptic note attached. Alcatraz has never known his parents and has floated from foster home to foster home over the years, due to the fact that he can't seem to stop breaking things. Door handles come off when he touches them, tables fall apart them he comes near, flames leap out of stoves when he uses them, etc. His unusual talent makes it difficult for people to want him around. As soon as his inheritance arrives, so does his grandfather, Leavenworth Smedry. Alcatraz didn't even know he had a grandfather and when Grandpa Smedry begins to reveal the true state of the world, Alcatraz can't believe what's he's hearing. Soon their adventures begin, starting with the bag of sand that has been stolen out from under him and taken back to that den of iniquity, the main library branch downtown.

The Smedry family is old and a great enemy to the Librarians due to their powers as Oculators. An Oculator uses different lenses (like glasses) to see or demonstrate different powers. They can track people by their footprints, blow great gusts of wind, shoot lasers, freeze objects and many more, depending on the lenses they have at their disposal. Alcatraz gets some fast lessons on how to use them and then is tossed into infiltrating the Librarian stronghold to retrieve his sand.

These are fun books, but mostly because of Alcatraz's narration throughout. He constantly denies his honesty, goodness and virtue and tries to convince the reader of their ignorance of how the world really is. I love his rant against authors, proclaiming their misanthropy and general delight in torturing readers by including cliff hangers at the end of chapters that don't resolve in the next chapter (he's talking to you, Dan Brown). That was half the fun for me.

My eight-year-old daughter loved these books and most of the reason why I read them was because I like to know what she loves to read. I was holding a boycott against Brandon Sanderson for a while because he made me cry like a little girl at the end of Mistborn: Hero of Ages, but I forgave him and read the Alcatraz books for my daughter. Then we could laugh together about bunnies having birthday parties and falling Samoans and other such nonsense that we both got a kick out of in the book. She hated all the narration, she just wanted to know what was going to happen next and started skipping over all the parts I loved the most. I guess this shows how the books could appeal to different audiences. Whatever. It was fun and I got to giggle with my daughter over it.

My next daughter might become obsessed with horses and then we'll read Black Beauty or Misty of Chintoteague and we'll bond over flowing manes from galloping horses instead of evil Librarians. Whatever it is, I can't wait. This has got to be one of my favorite parts of being a parent. When we read Charlotte's Web again recently, my six-year-old and I cried together over the ending. The last time we read it, she was too little to get it, but now she does and it moved her when she understood Charlotte's sacrifice and friendship. What other avenue can you have such discussions with your children than from reading to them out of the best books? Or just okay books? Or even books about kids who have prisons named after them--not the other way around, but you'll have to read Alcatraz to know why.

My eight-year-old is a fast reader and she's already polished off a stack of books that she is anxious for me to read. If I don't keep up with her, I will have to hear, "You haven't read The Thief Lord yet? Mom!" I might have to delegate some of the books out to my husband so we can keep up with her. I don't think he'll mind.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Girl Named Zippy & She Got Up Off the Couch

I owe Jenny big for introducing me to Haven Kimmel. I loved my first taste of her writing in The Solace of Leaving Early, but didn't enjoy her newest Iodine. That disappointment was more than reversed when I finally sat down to read her first book, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I resisted reading Zippy initially because I couldn't get excited about a memoir. Which just proves how limiting genre prejudice can be!

I loved Zippy! It was a witty collection of stories that were absurd, delightful, and sometimes almost too painful to read because they resonated so deeply with tender childhood experience. Kimmel blends both the heart-breaking and the heart-warming aspects of small-town life, achieving a sincerity that avoids cliche and sentimentality. And all done in her gifted prose that turns it into almost a tactile experience.

I listened to the audio version of Zippy, read by Kimmel herself. This was a disadvantage in some ways, because I would be so struck by something she said that I'd have to replay it in an effort to let the language sink in. It would have been so much more effective if I could have read the printed word directly. But the advantage was hearing it told in her own voice, complete with Midwestern drawl and lisping demonstrations. It added an authenticity to the stories that made them even more inviting.

Then came She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana. This Zippy sequel continues in a similar vein as a collection of personal essays from Kimmel's childhood. But as Zippy grows up (these stories cover her early teenage years) there is a slight edge as she begins to develop an awareness about the world around her. While there are many stories about Kimmel (all delightful and witty as you would expect), She Got Up Off the Couch is really about her mother who turns the family's world upside down by getting off the couch and going back to college. As you watch Zippy try to understand what her mother is doing and why, you also see her coming to grips with her parents' troubled marriage and unhappy home life; all told with characteristic self-deprecating humor and insight that's all the more striking for its understatedness.

In the preface to She Got Up Off the Couch, Kimmel writes:
Indiana is not the state our national eye turns toward for fascinating narratives, strangely enough. Mooreland is definitely not a mecca for the literary arts, although it is rich with crafts. And no one cares about the reminiscences of one more child with one more set of parents and neighbors and friends. I myself have been known to wince as if stabbed with wide-bore needles when faced with yet another coming-of-age memoir.
This is how I felt before reading A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch. Been there, done that, not interested. Keep your tedious childhood stories to yourself. But this is not the experience that awaits you in Zippy's story. Funny, poignant, and true in the deepest recesses of your childhood self, you will find yourself disappointed to reach the last page, and will carry a taste of her story in the days to follow.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Slanted Jack

I've been reading an awful lot of chick lit lately, between our co-reviews for the last two months and my own stack of girly stuff, so I decided it was time to inject some testosterone into my book pile. What better way than to read some serious science fiction with a hero with bulging muscles, mounds of weapons at his disposal and a penchant for peaceful resolution? Okay, so I figured I better get our two male readers interested again in what's posted on this here blog and thought if I wrote "weapons" "muscles" and "science fiction" it might get their attention. They are probably thinking I should have named this blog Red Hot Estrogen.

I reviewed One Jump Ahead a while back and decided it was time to see if the sequel was out. Slanted Jack by Mark L. Van Name delivers a second dose of our hero, Jon Moore, and his very cool Predator Class Assault Vehicle, Lobo. This time, Jon finds himself face-to-face with con man, Slanted Jack, who wants his help protecting a boy who has surprising abilities. Jon would normally ignore anything to do with Jack, but the boy is from his home world, Pinkelponker. Go ahead and giggle. The planet was named by a child and everybody thinks it's ridiculous. Anyway, Pinkelponker has been inaccessible by outsiders for over a century and Jon has completely lost contact with his family there. And Jon is 130 years old, but only because his sister, Jennie, changed the composition of his body to be laced with nanomachines that regenerate him on a constant basis, making him impervious to any wounds that don't include a gunshot to the head. Did I mention this was some serious sci-fi?

So if this is such a guy book, why do I like it? Jon Moore is a fascinating character. You learn bits and pieces about him as the book goes on and I learned more about him in the sequel than I did in the first book. I like having details naturally revealed to me, not all dumped in my lap. Jon doesn't want to hurt anybody despite being able to very easily. I love his relationship with Lobo. For a machine with some emotive programming, Lobo is very wry, sarcastic and you can tell there is more to him than meets the eye. You get a small glimpse of that in this book, but you can tell that Van Name is saving up for another book. The action is intense, the emotions are very real and Van Name leaves just enough unexplained so that the endings are always a surprise.

My only complaint is that the lone female character was a bit of a caricature of a helpless female. She's irrational, upset all the time, nearly useless and a seductive temptation for Jon. He's a perfect gentleman to her and the book is definitely rated PG, both in sex and violence, but it was kind of irritating for her to be so wimpy. Then the ending happens and you understand a bit more of everybody's motivations and behaviors.

I love science fiction and this was great fun to read (despite the atrocious cover art), but definitely start with the first book. You could understand everything that's going on in Slanted Jack without having read One Jump Ahead, but if you can get more of Jon and Lobo, why not read both?