Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mini-Reviews: Books of the Week

This week, I read three new books and re-read one.

A longer post is in the works about the re-read (Ender’s Game, which I gave away 20 copies of on Tuesday), but I thought I’d do mini-reviews for the other three.

What I Read this Week

1) Slam! by Walter Dean Myers
Slam by Walter Dean Myers
(Read a library copy.)

Greg Harris – better known as Slam – is most at home on the basketball court, but not very comfortable anywhere else. Not in his mostly-white, mostly-not-from-Harlem magnet school. Not with his childhood friend, Ice, who he is sure isn’t in the drug scene (he knows better!), even if he is driving an awfully nice loaned car. Not with his mother, who is dealing with her mother’s illness. Not even with his girlfriend, Mitisha, who seems like she is always expecting something from him.

This is a great book for basketball lovers – I enjoyed it because Slam is a compelling character and is beautifully written and plotted like all Myers’ work that I’ve read, but it was sometimes hard for me to follow the detailed on-the-court action, since it used basketball jargon. It definitely brought back memories I’d forgotten I had of my own middle school, B-team basketball experiences! Slam’s love for basketball is magnetic and catching, and you definitely root for him as he struggles to gain the same confidence in the rest of his life. No easy answers, but a positive and hopeful ending. It felt real.

2) Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
(Read a library copy.)

What if a girl who is fully, oddly herself showed up in the middle of your school and started serenading people with her ukelele on their birthdays? AND, she’s named Stargirl! What would you do?

If you are protagonist Leo, the answer is: awkwardly, slowly, and then fully fall in love. And then, as the initial haze wears off, wonder if you can handle being fully yourself, too.

This book is beautiful. It’s a love letter to everything in it: the desert, high schools, young love, making mistakes. It is readable and lively. Highly recommended.

3)Loser by Jerry Spinelli
Loser by Jerry Spinelli
(Read a well-loved copy loaned to me by the youth who had recommended Stargirl, after I gushed about it to her. :))

Zinkoff is not a cool kid, but by golly he is enthusiastic and earnest! This book, told in a semi-omniscient narrator viewpoint, chronicles Zinkoff’s life from his first, free steps outside through 6th grade. In its pages, you see the world through Zinkoff’s eyes and marvel at his simplicity, innocence, and beauty.

Not as plot driven (although there is a plot), I can’t help but compare Loser to Stargirl, which I read first and Spinelli wrote AFTER Loser. I liked Stargirl more, personally, but I see the ways in which the two books are similar and different and find them fascinating. Stargirl is much more talented and aware than Zinkoff, but both reveal Spinelli’s fascination with the nonconformists and those who don’t note or care what others think about them.

Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in the Near Future:

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The Miseducation of Cameron PostThe Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s get one thing clear: I loved this book. As a well-crafted piece of fiction I thought it was darn near close to perfect, and for me as a reader it was exemplary. Huzzah, Emily M. Danforth! What a debut!

SYNOPSIS (from Goodreads)

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief she’ll never have to tell them that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief soon turns to heartbreak, as Cam is forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and not making waves, and Cam becomes an expert at this—especially at avoiding any questions about her sexuality.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. To Cam’s surprise, she and Coley become best friends—while Cam secretly dreams of something more. Just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, her secret is exposed. Ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self—even if she’s not quite sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

I want to tell you about why and how this book resonated so deeply for me. That should allow you to decide if you want to read it, too.

On the most basic level, I was fascinated by the ways that Cameron Post (Cam), the hero, was similar-to and different-from me (and, to be honest, she was more different than the same, even though I found so many little connections and she stirred up so many memories for me). She is an athlete: a competition swimmer, a distance runner, etc. She often gets up to no good, practicing stealing just ‘cause from a young age, breaking into an abandoned building with her buddies… She loves to watch movies – lots of movies, and many of them over and over. She’s artistic (see, her dollhouse decoration project). She’s not a great communicator or a people-pleaser. She’s gay. None of those things is true of me, yet I connected with Cam because her childhood reminded me so much of mine.

She grows up in a small town in Montana, but every moment described in part one, where she is 12, reminds me of my childhood running wild with my friends in rural Pennsylvania or subsequent adventures on the rural/suburban cusp in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Cam and I are two very different people who have rubbed elbows with similar settings in our lives, and I have thought thoughts she’s thought, although with Danforth’s help her insights were often articulated either more or less clearly (more when they were narrated…less when Cam puts them into words).

Maybe I connected so much with Cam because Danforth made her and her world so vivid for me, even though I’m not a very visual person. I tend to skip long explanations of what the landscape or a character looks like, and I generally don’t “see” what they look like in my own mind. My mental pictures are soft-focus, like I’m looking at the book’s world with my glasses off.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post was different.

Danforth never, ever, ever slowed me down by being overly descriptive, yet she made Cam’s world absolutely real to me. I feel like I could go to the hayloft she and Irene share their first kiss in, to the pond-like pool Cam practices swimming in, to Cam’s room with her large desk, taken up entirely by her doll-house and television. In the third part of the book, I saw Jane Fonda (not the famous one, but that’s really the character’s name) and “Viking Erin” and Adam as clearly as if they were my friends, or I’d seen the characters played in the movie version. When I finished the book, I told stories about the characters to my family, as if these fictional inventions were people I’d been hanging out with for years.

I’m visualization-challenged, yet it all felt and looked real to me.

Not only did Danforth bring her characters and the world to life, and draw me deeply into my own memories of a tomboy childhood on other peoples’ farms and subsequent attendance at an evangelical church, Danforth also presented an exceptionally clean and well-structured novel.

No moment is wasted. Everything is, eventually, pulled together – delicate spider web strands finding each other in the center to wrap up the novel at the end. Her plot pulls you through the three sections her book is divided into, keeps you in rapt attention, submerges you in the given moment (often unsure what it means or could mean in the future.)

At a key moment in the book, I literally cried out, shut the book, and took a break because Danforth’s set up had suddenly shown me just what was happening next, and I didn’t feel ready to handle it. (It turns out it was worse than I thought; my prediction was a shade off of the more poignant reality.)

I didn’t mind that I’d figured it out – I hadn’t until right before it happened, a hair before the character had to learn what was going on and feel her bubble of happiness burst. It was ingenious, the way that Cam makes observations, seemingly ordinary, that will be transmuted by the revelation of what is going on. Haven’t we all had that moment? There were all those signs, but those signs could have been there some other day, anyway. They didn’t have to add up to utter catastrophe. But then they did, and they were forever changed by the memory of what they meant, what they led to. We should have seen it coming! That is what this scene evokes, ushering in part three of the book with a crushing blow.

Danforth – via Cam – often plays with this idea of memory and experience and how it is shaped, how meaning is made. One of my favorite moments of this is Cam’s internal monologue about meaning creation in part two (p132 of my copy):

…if renting all those movies had taught me anything more than how to lose myself in them, it was that you only actually have perfectly profound little moments like that in real life if you recognize them yourself, do all the fancy shot work and editing in your head, usually in the very seconds that whatever is happening is happening. And even if you do manage to do so, just about never does anyone else you’re with at the time experience that exact same kind of moment, and it’s impossible to explain it as it’s happening, and then the moment is over.

Danforth’s novel, like all great literature, allows each reader to see the world in a more similar way than we otherwise would. We live Cam’s life with her, and while we might interpret it differently or have varied reactions to it, Danforth’s artistry in highlighting the right moments and providing context – her shaping – is the same for each of us. And it’s pitch perfect.

I also have a thing for sometimes-hard-to-like heroes. I prefer a protagonist who is too nuanced to simply adore – a character like Tyrion in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series or Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy. Often, I don’t even notice a character might be hard to like until I read someone else’s review – this was the case for me with Cam (the review I read that made me realize Cam is hard to like was by the fabulous “Wendy Darling”:…). I loved her and felt for her and hurt with her throughout the book, even as I recognized how questionable many of her choices, coping methods, and outbursts were.

I love Cam because, like everyone and everything in Danforth’s novel, she was painted with many different colors. She was not just one thing. I don’t like to say that ‘she wasn’t black and white, she was grey,’ because then she sounds colorless – and she most definitely wasn’t that. She was just raw and inconsistent in that perfectly imperfect human way. She was uncategorizable.

It amazes me how hard it is to think about the novel and come up with any purely two-dimensional character – someone who was all good or all bad. I can’t think of a character we were supposed to root for who didn’t have faults or a character who hurt Cam/made mistakes who didn’t still seem human and well-meaning.

I love this about Danforth’s novel.

I particularly love it because she tackled a subject that is wrapped up with a deep section of my heart (one that needs to be prodded, is powerful when engaged, but that hurts when touched) and generally is portrayed as clear-cut by either side. She explored something polarizing, divisive, and ideological and made it human, real, and messy.

Along with general “coming-of-age + being gay + Montana + the 90s” subject of the book, Danforth tackles evangelical Christianity’s relationship with queer folk (gay people, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and intersex people… etc…although not naming each one or in any kind of cardboard cutout pamphlet way.) She placed part of her book (kind of a spoiler) in a “de-gaying” camp for Christian youth, run by an ex-gay minister.

I know people I really, really love who really, really believe that being gay is wrong and the just, kind, merciful thing to do is to try to help them. I don’t agree, but I also can’t write them off. In the book, Danforth and Cam have similarly clear sight and generosity while coming down firmly on the side of not trying to make people be someone they are not. For instance, the leader of this school/camp is portrayed as a really good guy who cares and is kind, even as what he’s doing to help Cam and the other youth warps them and numbs them.

Danforth tells a good story. She brings her characters and their world to life. She tackles an issue that is at the center of ideological debates without judging, even as she points out the perils of various “solutions” Cam and those around her attempt or have thrust upon them.

I think you could read this book from any perspective, any ideology, any point of view, and come away with a better understanding of the “other” than you had before. I will definitely be recommending this book to anyone who won’t be afraid of the red-hot issues it handles and is mature enough to deal with the relatively mild for adult fiction (but a lot for YA lit) sexual content and drug use.

However, I will especially be putting this into the hands of youth and adults who will see their own story reflected, in part, in Cam.

We don’t have enough characters like Cam, but especially when you put a high bar on the quality of writing and story-telling used to bring someone like her to life. The thing is, she isn’t just some gay kid – she’s an actualized literary person, and that’s why this book is readable and wonderful and why I selfishly didn’t want to share it when I first finished it. I loved it too much. Now, I’ve had time to process it, and I encourage you to read it and share it!

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Chocolate Decadence, Water for Your Soul!

Like Water for ChocolateLike Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sensual and electrifying, this book contains recipes, passion, magic, and a poetic voice, all woven into one perfect and irresistible masterpiece.

I wanted a slow read, something poetic and magical and gradually building, but Esquivel’s story and her characters swept me into the torrent of their lives and the plot of Tita’s lifelong search for love.

The book centers around Tita, born prematurely – crying from the smell of chopped onions – into the kitchen that her life will center around. With a tyrannical mother, a preternatural gift in la cocina, and a fiery but frustrated love, this is quite a story. Along the way, you will (slantwise, out of the corner of your eye, as you watch love and lust and sorrow and heartbreak and hope swirling around sumptuous recipes) learn a bit about the Mexican Revolution that takes place during the book, which is set near the border of Mexico and the United States.

Lush, lavish, and evocative, Esquivel’s prose and her characters will mesmerize you, affecting you much as Tita’s food affects those who eat it.

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Dahl’s SKIN will make yours shiver…

Skin and Other StoriesSkin and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spine-tingling, Twilight-Zone-esque Roald Dahl short stories!

If you love twist endings and surprises, you’ll love Dahl’s stories.

This volume has been organized for young adult readers from his many adult short stories, and, from tattoos to lamb legs to anguished trees, murder to espionage to gambling cheats, it will hook you through and through.

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Whetting the Appetite: The Hunger Games Movie!

**** – The short of it: The Hunger Games movie receives 4/5 stars from me, and is 5-star eligible. (A waiting period is in effect before I give 5-star ratings. I have to see if I’ll rewatch a movie and how long it will stick with me.)

I love Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I adore Katniss Everdeen…and, I’d been anxiously awaiting the movie for over a year. You see, the last time someone adapted one of my most loved books into a movie, they blew it. (It even had a perfect cast! Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter?) The writing and directing missed the mark. The movie was not a financial or critical success, and I can’t imagine it inspired many children to pick up the fantastic His Dark Materials series that begins with The Golden Compass.

Thus, last spring, when I finished reading Collins’ trilogy, I used IMDB and RottenTomatoes to obsessively research Chris Weitz, the writer/director who bungled his film adaptation of The Golden Compass, and Gary Ross, the writer/director for the upcoming Hunger Games movie. I was looking for patterns in reviews of previous writing and directing – was Ross likely to make the same mistakes Weitz had in his adaptation? My conclusion was that I could remain cautiously optimistic: Weitz’s record was poor, but Ross seemed to do best when he was creating adaptations from high caliber source material. Phew.

Last week, at a midnight show, the cautious optimism I’d maintained throughout casting (wherein I looked up the acting portfolios of Jennifer Lawrence and her male co-stars, especially, and decided they had the chops) was validated.

It was a good movie.

They did not mess up.


Why did I care so much? Why do I think the movie is good? Let’s start at the beginning.

Do you remember that time, when you were young, that you read a book that sparkled?

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