Monthly Archives: December 2012

Holiday News and Reading Roundup

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We did it! We pooled all of our Christmas gift money and bought a treadmill. This is something I’ve been promising my doctor I would do for years. It was a gym-quality machine that we bought used for about a third of the original price. Unfortunately, after borrowing a truck to pick it up and dragging it into the house, we can’t get it up the stairs. I have a perfect spot for it, backing into a dormer window in the bonus room facing the TV, but it’s too heavy for my two hefty he-men to haul up the narrow, curving stairway. We need one of those appliance dollies and at least one more guy. So for now, it’s taking up about a third of my living room, completely blocking our view of the Christmas tree. Come to think of it, how are we going to “undecorate” in the next few days?

I am diligently reading away, working to get those last few books in before the Children’s Media Awards in late January. I’ve been pushing through Printz books, and I have to say that my heart still belongs to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I read very early in the year. It is a beautiful story of teenagers with cancer, compassionately influenced by Green’s time as a hospital chaplain. It is snarky, funny, and sad, all at the same time. Adults will love it, too, as evidenced by Time Magazine just naming it the Book of the Year. I have read everything John Green has written, and I also agree with him heartily on the topic of turf grass. (See the YouTube video here.) The Fault in Our Stars is my favorite Green book so far. None of his books are appropriate for younger children.

I did indulge in one adult book before Christmas: City of Dark Magic, by Magnus Flyte, a pseudonym for two women writing together, rather like James Patterson, although he only claims to be one person. This is what book marketers call “a romp,” a fun novel in which a grad student in musicology is asked to assist her famous professor in Prague, working out a mystery concerning one of Beethoven’s visits to that city. Before she can arrive, though, he is killed through defenestration. This is my new favorite word. As I learned from Wake County Public Library’s Facebook page, it means being thrown from a window. Since I found that out about two weeks before reading City of Dark Magic, it seemed to be more than a coincidence that I found this book. There is no serious magic in the book, which is fortunate, since serious occult content makes me want to defenestrate a book, but there is time travel, humor, an historical mystery, and music. Also sex and bad language, FYI. Very fun if you are a fantasy fan and not too sensitive.

A YA book that I enjoyed very much was David Levithan’s Every Day, in which the protagonist, named A, has woken up each morning in a different body since the day he was born. Such a brilliant concept, and Levithan develops it beautifully. A is chugging along, dealing with learning about all kinds of people and working hard to leave each life at least as happy as he found it, until one day he falls in love with Rhiannon. How can he have a relationship if he will be someone else tomorrow? How can Rhiannon love him back when she never knows who he will be?

I call A “he” just because he fell in love with a girl. He really has no gender, and is in a girl’s body just as often as he is in a boy’s body. Levithan is a gay man and a well-respected editor at Scholastic. I’ve read several of his works, some co-written with another author, and I like him very much. However, like most YA authors, he does subscribe to the group-think, and this novel’s very structure lent itself to a didactic purpose. Levithan could fit so many issues into one book because every chapter dealt with a new life. One day, A is a religious kid. Let me tell you how to understand religion. One day, A is a gay kid. Let me tell you how to feel about homosexuality. One day, A is a suicidal kid. Let me tell you how you deal with mental illness. And so on. Never poorly done, of course, but a bit too visible to be comfortable.

Anyhow, A and Rhiannon do manage to have a relationship—I won’t tell you how—while both of them struggle with deep questions made urgent by A’s unique situation.  This is one of those books that you fall into so completely that you suddenly realize that you have no idea how the author is going to bring this to a resolution. But he does, and very neatly. Great stuff for thoughtful teens and adults.

Now we come to two books that I didn’t finish. Doesn’t that sound dreadful? Truthfully, they are both terrific books, but they are not for me. Sometimes you can recognize why a book is critically acclaimed, but you still don’t want to read it. I picked these up because they are near the top of everyone’s list for the Printz Medal, but they are both dystopians, and I am just so tired of the genre that I can’t read any more. I wanted to be familiar with them, though, in case they’re sporting shiny new medals on the cover in a couple of months. Smart teens, especially boys, would love either of the following two novels.

The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is about the United States after global warming, war, and a societal collapse. Washington, D.C., is underwater, and the area around it has grown up into a jungle. Animals that were formerly in the equatorial regions are now common in the mid-Atlantic states, and hybrid animals, such as coywolves, were created before civilization ground to a halt. The Chinese are the heroes who came to the rescue of the savage American factions, but they have now left the various tribes to themselves. I am not sure why China is not underwater, too, because of the global aspect of global warming, but perhaps I would have found out later. I read about 120 pages of this novel, a companion to his earlier Ship Breaker, which won the Printz Medal. There is no argument that Bacigalupi is an excellent writer. The world-building is tremendous, the characters are well-drawn, and the action is gripping. You do not need to read Ship Breaker to understand The Drowned Cities.

After that, I picked up Railsea, by China Miéville, an adult author of great renown. This is his first teen novel, and since I did not make it through his The City & the City, I approached with trepidation. What an astonishing writer Miéville is. Here is a man who loves an ampersand. & he doesn’t mind starting a sentence with one. His sentence structure is unique, and the world-building is amazing. Where Drowned Cities was wet, Railsea is dry. Imagine a world in which all of the places where there are now oceans are covered with dusty earth and railroad tracks. If your very survival depended on riding those trains, what would your biggest enemy be? Giant moles, of course. Not to reduce the genius of Miéville’s creation, but if you can imagine Moby Dick with the ship as a train and the whale as a mole, you’ve got the gist. Railsea is a wild adventure for a teen or adult who likes books that make you think. A librarian friend is pulling for this one for the Printz this year.

I have one more Newbery possibility to read, and then I’ll move on to some adult books. Speaking of which, I had not been working at a library for long when I asked a woman if the book she was looking for was an adult book. Shocked, she spit out, “No! It is not an adult book!” So I told her that the children’s department was to the left. She looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, “It’s not a children’s book!” As far as I could see, we were at an impasse. Then I realized by her facial expression that she thought that by “adult books,” I meant pornography. That’s when I learned the youth services librarian term “grown-up book” or “book for grown-ups.” It sounds like something Mr. Rogers would say, but everybody stays calm; they just start talking to you more slowly. Adult services librarians don’t have this problem. To them, adult books are just books, and children’s books are the ones shelved in the hopefully distant, noisy area.

Happy reading, and here’s to a bumper crop of great books in 2013!

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Birthdays and Babies

David and I spent the weekend in South Carolina, staying with my family and attending his mother’s birthday party. Before I left, I had planned to post an article somewhat more diverting than this one, but after crying my way through Friday night, I thought that we could wait on that.

Although I watched a few hours of news on Friday night and Saturday morning, I’ve been carefully turning off the TV since then. We see a snippet here or there, and that’s all I can handle. What meaningful commentary can be made on those twenty bright morning faces, ready to sing the ABC song and color pictures? How to make sense of twenty full juice boxes and twenty empty little pairs of mittens?

As a nation, we have some serious conversations ahead of us. In the beginning of our country’s history, everyone was armed. Little boys walked their sisters and younger brothers to school carrying guns to protect them from wild animals and (apologies in advance) Indians, but they never thought of shooting their classmates. Today, Israel and even Switzerland have more guns per capita than we do, but they don’t have the mass shootings that we’re seeing more and more. Why? What is wrong with us—psychologically, spiritually, socially—that we, as a society, want to kill big groups of total strangers?

I have no answers today, but I will say that some of the opinions offered by the talking heads should never have been spoken. Only one of many is the effort to link this tragedy to Asperger’s Syndrome. First of all, they do not know whether the shooter had Asperger’s or not; his brother just said he had some sort of problem. Secondly, people with Asperger’s are not more violent than anyone else. Although children with this problem do become frustrated easily, it’s blow-up-and-done. This young man had his plan meticulously mapped out, and it took a relatively long time to execute. Obviously not a typical Asperger’s meltdown. Since one in 88 children born today has some form of autism (see the Autism Speaks website), is it really healthy for the media to be creating a public hysteria that our children are a bunch of ticking time bombs? This is malpractice at its worst.

In happier news, David’s mom turned 87 yesterday, and her family threw her a big party at Kittiwake Baptist Church in Lexington, SC. We had a wonderful time seeing a lot of beloved people that we only get to visit once a year or so. Life goes by far too quickly, and I’m always amazed at how many more people are in our family! After the Connecticut tragedy, it was healing to see about a dozen little ones running around, singing, and getting smeared with chocolate frosting. Of course, I was chosen to cut the cake! Come to think of it, the room was full of diabetics, so it was bound to be one of us. It smelled heavenly, but I can honestly say that I didn’t even lick my fingers.

Speaking of which, I’m making a serious effort to walk every day and cut back on “unnecessary” eating. I started walking the first week in November, so it’s not such a big deal anymore to jump up out of my chair at work and take a turn around the park. David’s doctor recently told him in no uncertain terms that he must lose weight to control his blood pressure, so he is also walking every day. We had planned to get a treadmill with our Christmas gift money, but David’s January closing was cancelled, so now we will just pay bills and pray for good weather. Beginning a serious weight loss regimen in November is insane, by the way. I heartily recommend January instead, so that you can be in sync with the rest of the nation. I’ll keep you up to date on our progress. Film at eleven.

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Credit: The mitten picture was found on Google Images, from the website Miss PenPen: http://misspenpen.blogspot.com/2012/04/mittens-kittens-flitting.html

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Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Let’s start out by admitting that I did not want to read this book. I had it on my nighttable when it first came out and returned it without reading it. It was guaranteed to be a tearjerker, and I hate being manipulated emotionally. Later, when it started getting all sorts of buzz, I put it back on hold and had to wait for a month to get a copy! And just to let you know beforehand how I liked it, it was well worth the wait.

August is a young man who was born with facial deformities that are so severe that, after dozens of surgeries in his short life, children still scream when they see him. Because of the amount of time that he’s spent in the hospital or recovering from surgery, his mother has homeschooled him his whole life—until now. Auggie’s parents have decided that he will start middle school this year, along with his age-mates. Now for some reason, the author has placed fifth grade in middle school, and so this is a story about Auggie’s fifth grade year.

The principal, Mr. Tushman, is a good man who thought it would be a compassionate idea to ask several of his kindest students to show Auggie around and perhaps befriend him. You can imagine how that went all the way around. One of the students, Julian, is the type who is exemplary in front of adults, but is a bit of a bully with other kids, and of course his parents think the sun rises and sets on him. Julian is a popular boy, so other kids watch his reactions and copy him, and before long everyone avoids Auggie rather than risk becoming a social pariah. Some other students are nice to him out of pity, and that gets back to August, too. All the while, Auggie is an excellent student, has many interests, and is wise beyond his years because of all that he’s had to endure in his eleven years.

The story is divided into sections, and each section is told in a different voice, so that you can look at the same situation from different perspectives. The first section is by August, and although I immediately liked him, it was a relief to get another viewpoint, since looking through Auggie’s eyes can begin to pile on the guilt. Palacio was very wise to give us an opportunity to say to the other characters, “Well, yes. That’s only natural. I can’t blame you.”

Palacio gets bonus points for coming through on one of my big criteria for good children’s books: Auggie has terrific parents. They don’t always agree, but they love him very much. Furthermore, they love each other and their daughter. Via is the world’s coolest older sister, although she goes through some understandable troubles as she begins high school. It doesn’t take her long to realize that no one in her new school knows her as That Girl with the Deformed Brother, a fact of her life that has defined her in the past. We get to hear from her in one section, and the reader can’t help but think that she is a very honorable young woman. Palacio could have written a book in which everyone but August was evil, but she didn’t. The book honestly shows the struggle that normal people have when confronting someone so very different from themselves, but most people try to be as compassionate as they can be—even in middle school. Of course, there are always a few people who choose to live with hatred instead.

In the end, Wonder was not a sob-fest, as I expected, mainly because Auggie was not filled with self-pity. He was a genuinely nice, fun, and intelligent kid, and rather than running away, the reader wants to know more and more about him. This book was all about character development, both in the people in the book, and, I’m sure, in the reader. The problems in the beginning of the book seem excruciating at the time, but in the final crisis, we find that people who have disappointed us in the past can react in ways that we’ve never imagined, and sometimes that can fill us with hope.

I highly recommend Wonder to anyone ten or older, and I’d be very surprised if the Newbery Committee didn’t stick a gold or silver medal on this one.

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Saying Good-Bye to Edward

On Friday night, we watched Dark Shadows on DVD, and on Sunday, we went to the matinee of Breaking Dawn, Part 2. That’s it; I have had enough vampires. Be they sparkly and super-hunky or fanged and slightly rotted, Ich habe genug.

One of my earliest television memories is watching Dark Shadows. We had such dreadful nightmares that my sister, who is four years younger, was forbidden to watch. Not that the crackdown ever lasted. Our next-door neighbors in New Jersey had three girls in our age range, and at any point in time, two or three or all of us were absolutely restricted from watching. But when your older sisters are watching, how can you stand it? One day, at the house next door, my sister decided to run through the family room to catch a glimpse of the horror fest, and ran straight through Mrs. Gallagher’s just-polished glass door. Not a scratch on Karen, but I think Mrs. Gallagher almost passed out.

Why did we love Barnabas Collins so much? When I look at pictures of him now, he seems like an emaciated, tired old man. He was just so mysterious—not to mention rich and well-dressed. It was Barnabas Collins who firmly established my opinion that vampires are always thrilling and impeccably turned out.

When I was in the eighth grade, my school friend Theresa and I devoured vampire novels. They were hers, and we shared about a dozen of them, one after another. I suppose I thought that she got them from her mother, who was an English teacher. Why I thought that English teachers would read such trash, I do not know. At any rate, I’m sure that for Catholic schoolgirls, they passed as racy romances: handsome guy creeps into a young girl’s room at night, does something very wrong, but the girl is completely innocent. Her health seems to be failing, but she finds herself falling in love with him. Now what does that remind me of today? Hmm….

Once I got into high school, we had to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and watch Nosferatu. Talk about a rude awakening. Long, dirty fingernails are not romantic. If you’re shedding soil as you walk, no one is going to fall in love with you. That’s what I don’t get about the recent zombie craze. Why should I want to read a book or watch a movie about zombies? Not only are parts of them falling off, but they are hopeless conversationalists. I have read one zombie novel—The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan—and that was enough. Here’s the gist: Although they move slowly, zombies are quite persistent and hard to destroy, and they want to eat your brains and turn you into a zombie, too. That’s about it. Same plot, different terrified, still-living humans. Vampires offer so much more scope.

I went through a long vampireless period—never even read Anne Rice—until I became a children’s librarian, and along came Edward Cullen. Twilight was an occupational hazard. Still, look at the setup: powerful, perfect male is capable of destroying anyone without breaking a sweat, but he restrains himself out of his devoted love for a bland, uninteresting girl. He is pure goodness, and he teaches her virtue while she makes a mess of everything and tries to sin as much as possible. How messianic is that? Looking at romance plot arcs, that is one of the most basic. She is weak and needy; he is strong and powerful. He forsakes everything because he loves her more than she deserves. He saves her, and they live happily ever after. It’s an old story.

So, the “Twilight Saga” had a riveting story with great characters, and no one cared how well they were written. The movies started off hideously cheesy and campy, but improved as they went along. I was not really motivated to go to the last one, but David insisted. He is such a Twihard. So off we went, and it was not too bad, although I was always Team Jacob. It was much better than Johnny Depp’s Dark Shadows, which is really meant to be a campy spoof but was actually pretty bad. However, it was Johnny Depp, so it was obligatory.

There have been other interesting vampire books in the last few years: Thirsty, by M.T. Anderson, which is a non-romantic story for boys; Fat Vampire, by Adam Rex, who has fabulous, sarcastic wit; and The Radleys, by Matt Haig, a grown-up book about a vampire family. There are also great books with incidental vampire characters, like Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” and “Infernal Devices” series; The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley; and Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” series. For all the fangs in these volumes, none of them will keep the lights on at night. On the other hand, I couldn’t get through The Passage, by Justin Cronin. That is a serious hair-raiser. Besides, not one of the vampires in that story could rock a tuxedo.

For now, I think I need something more realistic—perhaps with a hero who can really dig into a nice salad.

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You Might Be a Redneck

David launched into a major rant a couple of days ago, and if you knew my patient husband, you would know how unexpected that was. A friend had innocently asked him if he watched Duck Dynasty, and he barked, “No! And I am getting sick and tired of having the South represented to the rest of the nation as a bunch of rednecks and idiots so that they can laugh at us!” She pointed out that Lizard Lick Towing was a show about people right here, near Wendell (pronounced WenDELL, or even WenDAYull) and that they were probably millionaires by now. He was not swayed. Think about it: David is a guy from a small town in South Carolina, and he sounds like it. Although he graduated from college with honors, was in the National Honor Society, the Who’s Who in American High School students, and on and on, every time he opens his mouth, he is judged. Why do Southerners do this to themselves?

I guess it started with Hee-Haw and The Dukes of Hazard. Southerners never saw the inside of a school, hung out in cornfields, and the girls’ wardrobes consisted of nothing but super-short denim bottoms and gingham halter tops. Around Dukes of Hazard time, David worked for a company with a home office in Chicago, and he said once, “I know they think that we’re all barefoot on dirt floors and don’t even know how to use our computers.” Years later, we all laughed at The Blue Collar Comedy Hour, but I worried that the rest of the country really believed that everyone below the Mason-Dixon was a redneck. Yes, there are uneducated people here, but do we think everyone in New Jersey is a Jersey Shore cast member? Do we think that all African-Americans are gangsta rap artists? If you said yes to either of those questions, you need more help than I can give you.

The latest reality show line-up is beyond appalling, though. Michael roars, “Swamp People is on the History Channel! How is Swamp People history?” He mourns that his favorite channel has sold out to the alligator wrestling demographic. Even worse, Duck Dynasty is on A&E, which is “Arts and Entertainment.” This used to be a high-end channel, but I think the princess has some hayseeds in her hair. Granted, it is about a family that is now rich due to the sale of their duck calls, but take a look. We’re not talking Downton Abbey here.

Taking a quick poll of our rural North Carolina neighborhood’s vocations, I can name: nurse, food service worker, retired police officer, engineer, nurse again, plumber, retired military, librarian (me!), realtor (David), and wedding planner. I haven’t seen any wedding planners in these reality shows. I suppose Daisy Duke would be happy to end up with the Duck Call King. I know he’d be happy.

A colleague and I were laughing the other day about the Designing Women episode in which Julia Sugarbaker is berating an editor in New York about his view of the South. She drawls, “We’re from Atlanta: the one that burned? We’ve rebuilt.” Apparently, we’re burning again. It’s homeowner arson this time, and we can’t even collect the insurance.

I was heartened to read yesterday that Senator Manchin of West Virginia has formally asked MTV to cancel Buckwild, which he considers raunchy and a poor representation of West Virginians. It just goes to show how bigoted I am when I read the article and thought, “Huh! Well, that’s a revelation.” We need more voices joining his, though, and there are more states to defend! I’ve lived in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and I’ll step up to the plate for any and all of them. C’mon, y’all! Let’s be proud and get loud.

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The Mighty Miss Malone

I usually run from Depression stories, but since this is a new book from Newbery-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis, and a companion novel to his wonderful Bud, Not Buddy, I had to give it a whirl. After all, we’re getting close to the end of the year, and I have to read everything that’s a “contenda” for the Newbery Medal this year.

Twelve-year-old Deza Malone has everything it takes to become a great writer, including an overused thesaurus that her older brother, Jimmie, gave her for her birthday. She loves school, and her favorite teacher has offered to tutor her next year so that she can go on to be famous some day. She is sure that Jimmie will be famous because of his beautiful singing voice, a gift that assures his acceptance wherever he goes, even though he stopped growing when he was twelve years old. But the Depression is biting ever more deeply into her family’s finances, and after her father is in a boating accident, everything about their lives changes forever. After a long time of recovery, her father leaves their home in Gary, Indiana, to find work, but when they don’t hear from him after a while, Deza, Jimmie, and their mother have to leave home to try to find him in Flint, Michigan. They ride the rails and have to spend some time in a homeless camp, and then one day, Jimmie runs away. There is so much confusion and struggle, but Deza and her mother continue to push through their circumstances, working toward a better life. Eventually, they begin to receive letters from her father saying that he has finally found work, but something is wrong. The letters don’t sound like her father at all. That’s when Deza runs away, too. She has to find the truth.

Curtis has written a moving and powerful story about the strength of the human spirit in a young girl who has no real reason for hope. Deza has a warm and supportive family, and her parents have taught her well the value of hard work, family love, and honesty. Curtis shows us a beautiful model of a strong African-American family, very different from many of the children’s and teens’ books of black families today. If I had a quibble with the book at all, it would be that Deza is a bit too good to be true. I looked at the picture of Christopher Paul Curtis on the end flap and thought that he must have some very sweet granddaughters, and he can’t imagine that little girls could be anything but sugar with no spice. Of course, I was just like that, but I hear that it’s unusual.

This story would be a great way to introduce children to the Depression era and to spark discussion about greed, poverty, hard work, and the many other issues that our children don’t consider very often. With strong characters and an exciting plot, I would highly recommend this book to kids from nine to fourteen.

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Will Sparrow’s Road

Will is on the run in this new novel of the Renaissance by Karen Cushman, who won the Newbery Medal for A Midwife’s Apprentice. Will’s mother left when he was little, and his father has now sold him to an innkeeper in exchange for some ale. If the innkeeper asks him to do something and Will disobeys, he will sell him to the chimney sweeps. Will knows that would be a short, sickly life, so he runs away, only planning as far as staying alive and finding food. Along the way, he meets a pickpocket, a young lord, a dwarf, a blind juggler, and a “purveyor of oddities and prodigies,” who offers him a job and then neglects to pay him.

Will Sparrow is Cushman’s first male protagonist, and he is not immediately likeable. Although he becomes a part of what we now call a Renaissance Faire, it is not at all romantic or beautiful. Master Tidball, Will’s employer, charges admission to a tent full of what he calls oddities, deformed creatures in glass bottles, some of which are fakes, but some are real. He wants the dwarf, Fitz, to do tricks and the cat-faced girl, Grace, to act like a wild animal. He calls them creatures and does not afford them the respect given to human beings. Cushman does not give Will supernatural virtues. As an uneducated boy of his time, he is just as fascinated by Fitz and Grace as the people paying their pennies to gawk at them, but he stays with the traveling show because he gets dinner every night.

I do have a soft spot for road-trip stories, and this one is filled with adventure and humor, which cushions the ugly truths that Cushman is showing us. There is no sweet, motherly figure who swoops in, takes Will home, and feeds him. He never becomes someone’s beloved little boy who goes to work on the family farm. However, Cushman shines a light on the twisted things of this world to help us to see true beauty within. Grace has a condition called hypertrichosis, a very rare genetic disorder that makes people exceptionally hairy. Instead of going to a doctor, as we would today, her family sold her to a travelling circus. It takes a long time for Will to see beyond outward appearances, but several difficult and revealing events help to mold him into a compassionate and mature young man.

Karen Cushman is a very engaging writer who specializes in the medieval and Renaissance time periods. I would recommend this absorbing novel to anyone, especially boys, between nine and fourteen years old.

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