Thursday, April 29, 2010

Co-review: About A Boy

We weren't supposed to read About A Boy by Nick Hornby for our co-review this month.  We were supposed to read How To Be Good by Nick Hornby, but Caren's library system had a computer meltdown and couldn't get a hold of it, or find out if they had it.  They did have About A Boy on the shelves so she picked that up instead and I requested a copy for myself.  It wasn't what I had picked to read, but I figured it was still by Nick Hornby--whose work I've been curious about--and that was good enough. 

I'm guessing that at least some of our readers have seen the movie, About A Boy, so they're already going to know the basics of the story.  Will Freeman is a man who has perfected the art of doing nothing.  He lives on the royalties of a song his father wrote many years ago.  He is a casual drug user, an inept liar, and a person who has chosen to be disengaged from humanity.  He's only interested in music and television and does not desire, nor see the point of, having a family or deep emotional connections with other people.

Enter Marcus and his depressed mother.  Through a series of events that include Will lying about having a child to get into bed with hot single mothers, Will becomes involved with twelve-year-old Marcus and all of his many issues.  After his mother's suicide attempt, Marcus has decided that he needs more people in his circle than just his mother and rarely-seen father.  He decides that Will knows the secrets to dealing with school bullies and social situations that require behavior that eludes Marcus, so he keeps coming to visit Will despite Will's strong desire for him to just disappear.  Will has no interest in dealing with anything that smells of responsibility.

As always, we don't hold back for these reviews, but don't worry.  There isn't exactly some big secret that gets revealed at the end anyway.  It's more of a gradual evolution of the characters.

Jenny:  I wasn't too excited about reading this book after you told me how bad the language was.  You were right, there were way too many f-words.  It got old. 

What I did like was how well Hornby portrayed Marcus' inner dialogue.  The constant fear of a repeat of the Dead Duck Day was so real and made me feel that same dread that Marcus was feeling.  It made me want to just hug him and make it all better.  Also, he doesn't get sarcasm at all and his puzzlement over what Will was saying to him half the time was fun.  I loved how he wanted Ellie to be his girlfriend, but had no interest in physical intimacy.  I understood his frustration at adults not understanding what he needed or was saying because I remember feeling that exact same way.  "Just stay out of their way" has got to be the worst advice for dealing with school bullies an adult has ever said to a kid that age.  These things were probably my favorite parts of the book.  Marcus is just wonderfully likable.

Caren: Yes, Marcus was great.  And I couldn't help but like Will too.  Even though he was such a waste of human flesh for the first half of the book, the humor and absurdity of his life engendered affection whether he deserved it or not.  Aside from the language (which was really over-the-top, I thought), I really enjoyed Hornby's style of writing and sense of humor.  And as funny as the writing was, there was more to it than that because as the characters developed the overall message was that the bonds that tie us to others are bonds of security, not captivity.

Towards the end of the book, though, I was less impressed with the evolution of Marcus and the message that came along with that.  I like that he became more accepted, but did he have to do it by embracing the frivolous trappings of his peers?  He ends up turning his back on the things he valued in the past because they were all things his mom kind of thrust on him and were making him geeky.  That's fine, and I think it was great for him to exercise some independence, but did he have to do it by completely rejecting his mother's lifestyle in favor of the superficial?  I thought some middle ground would have been better.

I was also disappointed with the final message that you can't count on the marriage relationship surviving so it's best that you surround yourself with as many people as possible outside of marriage because they'll always be there no matter what.  Sadly, that may be true for some people, but it still bugged me that it was portrayed as a good thing.  That every other relationship can be counted on except the one between your mother and father, or you and your spouse.  With that kind of a depressing outlook, Marcus is doomed to misery in his adult life!

Jenny:  I feel like we got a glimpse of how Marcus would end up when Will was trying to help him fit in at school, telling him to become invisible by becoming like everyone else. It made me sad that that was how Will taught him to be accepted was by conformity.  That's why kids who stand out are mocked and scorned and tormented, though, is because they refuse to be part of the crowd.  Or they are oblivious, like Marcus.  It makes me wonder why that's so threatening, to be different.

I've been thinking about Ellie all day.  Did you know anybody like that in high school?  Constantly in trouble and mad at the world?  There was a guy who sat next to me in my English class my junior year who had a blue mohawk and tons of piercings.  He acted like he was this rebel, had big ideas and nobody understood him.  Then I realized he did all that to get a reaction out of people.  He was pretty shallow, really.  I felt that way about Ellie.  She liked pushing buttons with her Kurt Cobain sweatshirt and black lipstick.  I think it was an act.  Then when Marcus called her out on her insincere comments about suicide, I was cheering. 

Will's evolution through the course of the book was one of my favorite aspects.  Here's my favorite passage from the end of the book when Will is at the police station with Marcus' parents and Ellie and her mother:
Some of these people he hadn't known until today; some of them he had only known for a little while, and even then he couldn't say that he knew them well.  But here they were anyway...all of them bound to each other in ways that it would be almost impossible to explain to anyone who had just wandered in.  Will couldn't recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling, chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human.  It wasn't too bad, really; he wouldn't even mind being human on a full-time basis.  
Will had spent his whole adult life trying to avoid these situations and now has discovered that it's not so bad after all.  Compare that to the beginning of the book where he is repulsed by his friends with a new baby!

Caren: That's a great quote!  I was a bit disappointed in Marcus' ending, but I was happy that Will had a lot more potential to really live life at the end.  And I felt the same way about Ellie.  It was all just a show, and I was so glad that Marcus figured out that her act was so shallow and meaningless.

I'm curious if you liked it enough to read some more of Hornby's stuff.  I don't think I will -- unless it's by recommendation.  There were a lot of things I liked about it, but I didn't like it so much that it was worth putting up with all the language.  There are just too many other things I'd rather spend my time reading.

Jenny:  Nah, I probably won't bother again unless somebody raves about something else.  It's kind of sad that we bothered to do it in the first place since there are other books out there worth the effort.  This wasn't really worth it.  Oh well, live and learn, right?  I'm feeling a little gun-shy about my choices for co-reviews this year since both have been duds.  Hopefully the Swan Thieves for next month will be amazing.  It'll redeem my choices so far. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Lightning Thief

I have heard from a lot of people who enjoyed Rick Riordan's book The Lightning Thief, so I was interested when our book group picked it for this month's read.  Getting through the wait list was quite the ordeal, but that's usually a good sign, right?  I knew very little about the story going into it, except that it was "like Harry Potter," and involved kids who were the half-mortal offspring of Greek mythical gods.  I'm always dubious when something is marketed as being "like" another huge success, but after reading it I can see both why it would be called that, and also how that's not really a fair description.

Percy (short for Perseus) Jackson is a troubled teen being raised by an angelic mother and repulsive stepfather in New York City.  His academic and behavioral problems mean he has bounced around from school to school, and when the story opens he is finishing out his sixth grade at a boarding school for juvenile delinquents.  Bizarre experiences have happened to him over the years, but nothing quite as strange as during the opening chapter when his math teacher turns into a freakish creature and tries to destroy him while on a school field trip.

After school lets out, Percy continues to be pursued by dark forces until his mom sends him to a special summer camp that his absent and mysterious father had always wanted him to attend.  Eventually he discovers that his father is none other than Poseidon, who together with Zeus and Hades constitute the Big Three.  But the Big Three had made a pact following WWII not to have anymore mortal affairs (because it was their offspring who were responsible for the war), so Percy isn't even supposed to exist and is already in mortal danger just for being born.  Then add to that the fact that Zeus's master thunderbolt was stolen right around the same time Percy's existence comes out and he is immediately suspected.  The only way for him to clear his name and prevent a catastrophic world war is to find the lightning bolt and return it to Zeus.  Thus starts a quest that takes him across the country, into the bowels of the Underworld, and to the heights of Mt. Olympus.  Like any true heroic quest, he fights mythical monsters and other sinister traps, learning lessons about courage, friendship, and his own worth along the way.

The parallels to Harry Potter are pretty obvious.  Adolescent boy (not quite an orphan in Percy's case, but close) who struggles to fit in discovers that he possesses special powers and belongs in a secret world that co-exists with the known world but the majority of humanity is blithely unaware of it.  Some of the things that make the story so delightful were similar attractions in Harry Potter.  The juxtaposition of the mythical and the contemporary were refreshingly creative, and the whole thing was infused with a light-hearted humor that made it a fun romp.  Riordan's writing isn't as well-crafted as Rowling's, the plot twists were more predictable, and there wasn't the greater underlying depth that made Harry Potter so much more than just a fun story.  But I've also only just read the first in the series so I can't say how those things may change over time.  Beyond that, though, I hesitate to draw more parallels with Harry Potter because I think Riordan's work can and should be allowed to stand on its own.  He definitely had command over the story and action and there was no sense that he was just trying to milk another Harry Potter success.

Some of the things I liked most about The Lightning Thief were, as I said before, how he meshes the mythical world with the "real" world in ways that are cleverly convincing.  (For instance, demi-god children are prone to dyslexia and ADHD because their brains are hard-wired to read ancient Greek, not modern English, and their natural battle reflexes make it difficult to sit still in a formal classroom.)  Another plus -- I have always enjoyed studying mythology, and it was fun to dust off some of the cobwebs in my memory to appreciate how Riordan was bringing it to life.  I also enjoyed the first person narrative.  It was very direct and funny, but without resorting to immature humor or adolescent stereotypes to convince us it was a 12-year-old talking.  Just as an example of the strong narrative voice, some of the chapter titles are, "I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom," "A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers," and my personal favorite, "Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death." One thing Riordan did very well was keeping up a fast page-turning pace.  The story is full of action that drives the narrative forward and I finished it the same day I started it.  I just couldn't help it!  When you're having that much fun, why stop?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Taking a trip with Mary Russell

I recently spent a couple of weeks out of town, and had a whole stack of library books to choose from to keep me company while traveling.  Some I'd picked up out of idle curiosity; some I checked out because I felt like I should read them, not because I really wanted to; and a few I was genuinely excited about.  Guess which ones actually got read while I was away.  What can I say?  I was on vacation!

A few months ago I read Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and was hooked on the delightful young and brilliant Mary Russell who is befriended and tutored by an aging Sherlock Holmes.  So I was happy to pick up the next in King's prolific series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women.  Once again, Mary Russell takes center stage with Holmes as an important, though secondary, character.  The politics of the post-WWI era come into play when Russell gets involved with a group that is part religion and part suffrage movement, led by a charismatic woman named Margery Childe.  As danger stalks Childe's inner circle of followers -- and Russell herself -- she puts herself at great personal risk to uncover the truth of the evil forces behind it all.

At the same time, Russell faces personal conflict in her relationship with Holmes.  As she has grown into adulthood her feelings of respect and admiration for him have blossomed into affection, but it's an affection that he shuns.  He is permanently entrenched in bachelorhood and wants nothing to do with affairs of the heart.  Russell herself is as much guided by intellect as emotion in her choice, since the two of them make a most logical match, but she feels deeply enough to be hurt by his rejection.  The tension it creates in their relationship becomes one of the most engaging parts of the plot, even though it's a minor subplot to the main action.

A Letter of Mary comes next in the series.  This time the mystery involves an old archeologist friend who is killed shortly after giving Russell a perplexing and tantalizing artifact -- a letter that purports to have been written by Mary Magdalene during the destruction of Jerusalem.  Russell's passionate interest in theology and strong feminist ideals are immediately piqued.  But it's her sharp powers of deduction and skill at intrigue and disguise -- accompanied by the indispensable Holmes, of course -- that helps to solve the mystery of her friend's murder.

As mysteries, both novels were interesting but not riveting.  If there was nothing else to them than the mystery, they would have fallen disappointingly flat.  (Which makes me wonder about King's other non-Mary Russell novels, since I think that mystery is the only genre she writes in.)  As period pieces, they were more intriguing due to King's convincing recreation of 1920's London with the politics and social issues of the time.  But the most engaging parts of the story surround the multi-layered character of Mary Russell.  Her strengths, her failings, and her human complexities are so well-portrayed that she feels like she could walk right off the page.  Throw in her fascinating relationship with Sherlock Holmes, and I think I could read about her forever.  And at the rate King is writing these novels, maybe I will!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Secret Life of Bees

You know that feeling you get when you hear about a book for a long time and by the time you finally sit down to read it you are so captivated that you wonder what took you so long?  Unfortunately, that does not describe my experience with Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees.  After all the hype, that's what I had hoped would happen.  Instead, I felt like I just had to get through it so I could get onto something more interesting.  Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it, I don't know.  But fortunately it was a pretty quick read so my agony didn't last long.

Okay, maybe agony is too strong a word.  But it took four days to get through, which is an indicator either of great length and complexity (neither of which fit), or near apathy on the reader's part (bingo!).  It is such a popular book that I'm sure I'll step on some toes saying I didn't like it, so I will try to be fair and specific.  But mostly I just want to move on to something more interesting!

The Secret Life of Bees is a coming-of-age story featuring Lily Owens, a 14-year-old girl raised by an abusive father who has spent the past ten years haunted by the guilt of accidentally causing her mother's death.  Either one of those things would be enough to cause issues, so you can bet she has a whole truckload to sort through.  She struggles with debilitating feelings of worthlessness, abandonment, and a deep longing for a mother she can't remember.  Her father hires a strong-willed black woman to take care of Lily, and when Rosaleen puts herself in mortal danger after offending the town's most violent racists, Lily sees no other option than for both of them to run away.

Did I mention that this takes place in South Carolina in 1964?  That's pretty important in establishing the political and social climate of the time.  The Civil Rights Act has just been signed and much of the South is in turmoil over integration and extending voting rights to blacks.  Not exactly the best place for a white girl and a black woman to find refuge together.  But refuge they find, at the home of an eccentric group of three black beekeeping sisters.  There Lily faces the demons of racism that threaten those she loves, comes to terms with the inward demons that haunt her personally, and discovers what it means to be loved.

Sounds sweet and reflective, right?  Sure, it is that.  I guess I was just expecting a little more.  The things that Lily deals with are serious and yet somehow her character feels false as she works through them.  Maybe it's because for most of the story she is possessed with a keen sense of perception about life and humanity, but then when she learns the truth about her mother she behaves in a petty and immature way that's contradictory to what we've seen all along.  So mostly I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and leave her to her own stupidity.  Not exactly how you should be feeling towards the main character at the book's climax.  Some of the imagery was compelling -- the bee theme, the Black Madonna, etc.  But sometimes I felt like I was being positively drenched in female power and catharsis, and it sort of made me ill -- like having too many sweets on an empty stomach.  And then there was the underlying sexual imagery that got old, especially when it was often blurred with Lily's longing for her mother.

What I think Sue Monk Kidd did best was creating a setting that you could almost breathe in, it was so real.  The characters weren't as full of life as they could have been, and the story itself spent a lot of time going nowhere.  But the setting was strong and alive and made me feel like I had really been raising bees in South Carolina in 1964.  Is that enough to read one of her books again?  Probably not.  But at least I can check this one off my list!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Haven Kimmel's books for children

If I ever get to meet Haven Kimmel, I already know what I will ask her.  "How do you manage to tell such sad stories with humor and beauty?  Huh?  HUH?!"  I'll try not to grab her by the shoulders and shake really hard.  Seriously, it is amazing to me and maybe if I shake her hard enough something will pop out of her brain and I can steal it and write my own beautiful book.  It would be worth the restraining order she'd inevitably put on me.  Caren and I are huge fans of Haven Kimmel's books, which is evidenced here, here, here, here, and here.  I'm starting to think I should just write a blog post that says, "Read a new Haven Kimmel book, you should read it too" and leave it at that.  But no, I will wax long and enthusiastically on every new book she writes.  Get used to it.

I discovered recently that Kimmel had written two books for younger readers, so of course I had to read them.  The first is a picture book called Orville: A Dog Story and was actually written in 2003, so it's been out for a while.  It tells the story of Orville, a dog who's had a sad life of being mistreated and shuffled from one owner to another.  He ends up with a farmer and his wife, who clean him up and use him as a watchdog, but don't really love him.  It doesn't help that he's ugly, huge, wild and barks constantly.  The poor thing barks because he's so miserable.  See what I mean?  Sad story.  Well, Orville sees a woman move in next door and he falls in love.  He breaks his chain, gets into Sally's house and watches over her while she sleeps.  She wakes up shocked to find a huge ugly dog in her living room and calls the fire department.  Orville is dragged back home by the farmer only to break free again and go back to Sally's house.  This happens several times before a firefighter makes the observation that maybe the dog loves her.  The only thing that could have made this book perfect is better illustrations.  I didn't care for the watercolors that left out so much detail and looked sloppily done.  Other than that, it was a beautiful book.  It's a tale of heart-rending loneliness, of neglect and loss.  But it's also a tale of love and joy.  Geared towards children, it's not too sad but just enough for me to have a good talk with my kids about that poor sad dog and why he was now happy.

The second book was Kaline Klattermaster's Treehouse and was written a few years ago.  It's a juvenile fiction book, so about 150 pages and great for a 2nd or 3rd grader to read.  It would also make an excellent read-aloud book, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  Kaline Klattermaster is an odd little seven-year-old boy who doesn't understand why he can't play his imaginary bugle at school, dig holes in his yard and then cover them up with grass for someone to fall into, explore his strange neighbor's basement, or figure out where his father has disappeared to.  His father always made sure to set the timer for his bath, brushing his teeth and other activities that need regulation.  Things with his father are always very orderly, giving the reader the distinct impression that this guy has a serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder.  Kaline's mother is not nearly as orderly, driving on the grass and making Kaline eat a chicken leg for breakfast after forgetting to wake him up in time for school.  Nothing like his father.  In defense of the bullies at school and his no longer orderly household, Kaline imagines up two big brothers, who also happen to be in the third grade, and an enormous treehouse to play in.  It keeps him safe and helps him cope with the fact that he doesn't know where his father has gone.

Doesn't that sound like a sad story?  Then let me tell you that I laughed out loud over and over and over again reading this book.  I laughed until I thought I would get a stitch in my side.  Kaline has the best imagination I have ever read about.  My oldest daughter and I read it and quoted it to each other and laughed over it and talked about it and read it again.  I could own this book.  When my daughter had her birthday, she'd convinced herself I was giving her a copy of Kaline Klattermaster and was sorely disappointed that she got Nancy Drew instead. This book was a treasure and despite the fact that it's dealing with separated parents, a little boy lost and confused, and nasty school bullies, you can't help feeling lighter after reading it. 

How does she do it?  How can Haven Kimmel take such sad circumstances and make you laugh out loud over them?  Like in A Girl Named Zippy, she doesn't mope or generate pity for less than ideal circumstances, and in some cases really horrible situations, but instead finds reasons to laugh.  Not all her books are like that.  Oh my goodness, Iodine was not funny in the least, nor some of her other books, but when she aims to create humor, she does it splendidly.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, one of my favorite morning traditions was to read the comics section of the newspaper my parents subscribed to.  I barely tolerated the boring and ancient strips like Beetle Bailey, Blondie and Family Circle, occasionally chuckled at Garfield, loved the quirkiness of The Far Side, but saved the best for last.  Calvin and Hobbes was always the best of them all, whether it was funny or poignant.  Sometimes both.  When Bill Watterson announced his hiatus from cartooning for nine months, I didn't know how I could stand waiting that long.  When he came back, it was with the most beautiful spreads, unbelievable colors and a structure unlike anything else.  When shortly after his hiatus Watterson announced the retirement of Calvin and Hobbes, I was devastated.  I did not want this good thing to come to an end.

A few years ago, my kids were re-reading my husband's collections of Fox Trot and ripping the covers and dog-earing the pages from use.  The thought came to me that I ought to get them some Calvin and Hobbes books from the library and see what they think.  The copies we checked out must have been read a dozen times each in the few weeks we had them from the library.  They guffawed and howled with laughter, they came running to read me passages, they needed dozens of words explained to them, and then acted out their favorite strips as an impromptu play.  My memories of joyful morning readings came flooding back and I couldn't believe it took me that long to introduce them to Calvin, Mr. Spittle, Moe the bully, the myriad of snowmen, and Hobbes.  Ah, Hobbes.  I had wished so many times that he was my best friend.

Biographies have been written before where the subject declined to tell their story, but poor Nevin Martell had his hands full in writing anything about Bill Watterson in his biography, Looking for Calving and Hobbes. In addition to being violently opposed to syndicating his comic strip or syndication in general, Watterson is a fiercely private person.  His family and friends have closed ranks around him, making it nearly impossible to find any personal information about him.  When Watterson was writing Calvin and Hobbes, he rarely was interviewed and never showed up for awards given to him.  Despite all these obstacles, Martell has written a wonderful biography of the creator of this iconic strip.  He explores Watterson's childhood, education, a brief career as a editorial cartoonist, and then his time as the genius creator of a decade worth of amazing comic strips.  Martell explores his own love of the strip and how it was part of his own life.  The interviews he was able to get from editors and some friends were filled with compliments on Watterson's talent and process, but it was all slightly tinged with sadness over Watterson's refusal to be interviewed by Martell.

Despite that bittersweet aspect, I loved reading this book.  I loved learning more about how Calvin and Hobbes came to be and I loved hearing a fellow fan enjoy the process of finding out more about Bill Watterson.  It was an enjoyable read and filled me with nostalgia.  I still love reading comics and though my list is pretty short of what I read regularly, the closest I've found to the greatness of Calvin and Hobbes is Sheldon by Dave Kellett.  He seems to channel that sense of fun that Watterson was a master at.  Plus, Kellett is an independent cartoonist, not syndicated by any newspaper and still popular and putting out collections.  I think he and Watterson could have been kindred spirits had the internet been around for Calvin and Hobbes.  Sheldon is always the last comic I read every morning so that it lingers with me, kind of like saving dessert for last. As much as I miss my buddies Calvin and Hobbes, reading Sheldon brings a little of that excitement for comics back to me.

I've got a project this week to help my kids spend their birthday money on  Guess what they want to buy?  As many Calvin and Hobbes books as their money will get them.  Not a bad choice.