Category Archives: Bookish Review

Books that Help Us Remember: Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States: our three-day weekend that often consists of BBQs, family, and the onset of summer, but – more importantly – provides us with the opportunity to stop and honor the men and women who have died serving in the Armed Forces.

I am fortunate enough not to have lost any of my own loved ones to war, and I am a book nerd. Because of this, I turn to literature to help me slow down and think about the cost of war and about those who serve and give their lives. Here are four books I’ve read this year that help me hold the fallen soldiers of America more clearly in my memory.

1. Doing My Part by Teresa R. Funke
(For ages 9-12, according to the book cover. WWII historical fiction. Set in Illinois.)
Summary
Helen is 14 years old, working on a factory assembly line over the summer to contribute to her family’s coffers and to the war effort. The story is elegant, realistic, and deeply entrenched in history. Helen is trying to prove how grown up and responsible she is, but doing the right thing consistently proves to be more complicated than she’d thought it.
During the book, she increasingly tunes in to what is going on in the war, especially as her cousin and her best friend’s older brother go off to join the fight.

Why It Helps Me Remember
Helen’s neighbor is Mrs. Osthoff, a German immigrant who has experienced deep losses and withdrawn from the world. Helen begins to connect with Mrs. Osthoff after accompanying her grandmother to deliver the news that Mrs. Osthoff’s son has died in the war.
Because of this direct brush of family and community with the death of a young soldier, this book aimed at young readers helped me sympathize with the many families in our modern era and in our past who are dealing and have dealt with just this sort of loss.
Doing My Part by Teresa R. Funke

2. Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
(Young Adult literature. Fiction. Cybils Award Nominee for Young Adult Fiction (2011), Andre Norton Award Nominee for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011))

Summary
Lucky Linderman isn’t so lucky. In fact, he’s depressed, and he might be going crazy. He is the target of a particularly pernicious bully. His dad is never home and isn’t that present when he is: his restaurant is his life. Lucky’s mom swims, swims, swims and pretends things are okay. When he sleeps, Lucky visits his grandfather in a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam. When he wakes from these dreams, he finds physical manifestations of them, which he then hides.
This is the summer where something changes. His mom takes him to stay with relatives (who have a pool) for a few weeks. Lucky makes unlikely friends and an unlikely enemy. He stands up for someone. Connects with his mom in a new way. Faces fears. Faces the ants that constantly mock him.
This books is part dream and part reality, but all excellently and intensely written.

Why It Helps Me Remember
Lucky’s grandfather fought in the Vietnam War, and he never came home. While this story is about much, much more, the Vietnam dream sequences and the impact of the loss of Lucky’s grandfather on him and his own father (the child of the man who didn’t come back from Vietnam) bring the cost of the ultimate sacrifice to life.
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

3. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (book 3 in the Chaos Walking Trilogy)
(Young Adult literature. Science Fiction. Teen Buckeye Book Award Nominee (2012), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Young Adult Fantasy (2010), Carnegie Medal in Literature (2011), Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of the Year for Fiction (2010))

Summary
War dominates the final book of this trilogy, and many lives are lost.
Since this is book three in a trilogy, please go visit my review of the excellent first book. I don’t want to ruin any of Patrick Ness’s perfect storytelling for you.

Why It Helps Me Remember
While the war in this book happens on a fictional and very unusual planet in the future, Patrick Ness weaves a compelling and realistic story within that frame, and it is a story in which you care about people who are giving their lives in a war. Because of the quality of the writing, you connect deeply with the main characters and care about the people they care about. You see what is happening, how people serve, how they die. It impacts you. I have never been to war, but it is through books like this that I am most able to empathize for those who have lost someone and to see, dimly, what making the ultimate sacrifice might be like.
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
(Adult. Fiction. Set in New Hampshire and Canada.)
Summary
Narrator Johnny Wheelwright’s life is shaped largely by the powerful voice of the tiny Owen Meany, his boyhood friend. Owen dies young, as he’d predicted as a boy, but the narrator never lets go of Owen’s memory. This is the story of their growing up together, of Wheelwright’s odd faith in Owen Meany, and of Wheelwright’s bizarre Canadian adulthood.

Why It Helps Me Remember
The narrator is obsessed with the Vietnam War, and it is because of this book that I have a sense of the scope of lives lost by American soldiers in that war. As odd and imperfect a narrator as Wheelwright is, it is through this book that the costs of that war came to life in my mind in a way they never had in text books or political discussions. Irving has his narrator obsessively tracking the increasing body count as the war goes on and the boys get closer to and past draft age, and that combination of true data mixed with a unique, compelling narrative hit a nerve for me and helped me see the lives lost in that war.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

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The Plot that Will Never Let You Go

Apparently, creating a Pinterest board for all of my 5-star books leads to writing lots of reviews. Here’s another.

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love great writing? Read it.
Love a great plot? Read it.
Love stylized writing? Read it.
Love action? Read it.
Love suspense? Read it.
Love science fiction? Read it.
Hate science fiction, but love dystopian books? Read it.

Basically, just read it.

It’s hard to talk about without ruining it.
.
.
.

Wait, you’re still there? You want to know what HAPPENS? Well, fine. I’ll try to share something, spoiler-free.

The narrator is a teenage boy. He is the youngest of 146 men in Prentisstown, on a colony planet.

His world is loud: every thought of every creature and all the men can be heard. Walking through town can give you a headache.

They are all that is left on the planet, having killed off the native aliens (Spackle) and lost their women (his ma included) to disease in the war.

That’s just the beginning, though. Something happens that unravels his world, and he is sent off on a journey he could never have imagined. At every turn, it appears that some fact is not as it had seemed…

The epic journey at the center of this book rivals many others, but the speed and danger of it – combined with Ness’s pitch-perfect writing – reminds me most of Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Ness, however, is much much more YA friendly, and his plot hooks you and drags you along bleeding and gasping behind it through every artful page.

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Three Months Later, I Finally Review THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Upon finishing this book, I couldn’t rest until I’d found its next reader. I passed it on at 11:30pm, about 30 minutes after finishing it.

Every time I see it on my five star list, I think to myself, “Does that deserve 5-stars?” Then, I start remembering it. “Oh. Right.” I think, “It does.”

Here’s my review, at least three months after reading it. I didn’t even Google anything, although I usually do to get the details right…This book is so amazing for me that it just comes flowing back.

The book is about Hazel. She’s a teenager. She’s dying of cancer. She wants to avoid being a “grenade” – she doesn’t want people to hurt because of her when she dies. To minimizing the casualties, she avoids everyone but her parents and the cancer support group she attends.

Beyond her parents, there is one other thing she cares about. It’s a book, by a Dutch author. She feels like he, through his book about death, is the only one who “gets” her and what she’s going through. (This is the book within the book. There is no such book or author, although Green quotes the book a fair amount in his book. I love that.)

Then, she meets a boy. He’s beautiful. He’s in remission.

Against all of her best judgment and running counter to her rules for coping with her impending doom, she forges a connection with him. She shares the book, and he shares her enthusiasm for it. There is love.

Then, there is the necessary external conflict that drives the plot forward. It is wonderful and only partially predictable, and I refuse to give it away.

The reviews I read of this book said that it was John Green at his best, and that his specialty is a highly-intelligent but detached teenage protagonist, but in this book everything is pitch perfect. I’ve only read one other Green protagonist (one of the Will Graysons in Will Grayson, Will Grayson), and while I really liked it I agree that he has taken his strengths to the next level in this intense, emotional, intelligent and highly literary book.

A must read for deep and thoughtful teenagers everywhere, and delicious and poignant for the rest of us. Bravo.

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The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict SocietyThe Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Plot: Four child prodigies are recruited to help save the world.

Who needs more than that?

I love puzzles, precocious children with immense responsibility, and good, fun writing, so The Mysterious Benedict Society was definitely for me. How about you?

Trenton Lee Stewart says on the jacket that the idea for the book came from a chess riddle he thought up on the way to a restaurant. By the time he got there, he knew he had to write this book. (And I’m so glad he did!)

The characters are smart in different ways. Each one on his or her own would not have the power to save the world, but – together – they just might. I appreciated Stewart’s depiction of different kinds of brilliance.

This is ever so slightly a spoiler, but you’d know who the four heroes are by the end of the second chapter anyway and I want to demonstrate how marvelous and varied they are. I love that (and the fact that Stewart managed to surprise me a time or two in the ending!) about this book.

*Kate is capable of feats of physical prowess and spatial reasoning
*Sticky remembers everything he’s ever read and reads rapidly.
*Constance is incredibly precocious and outrageously stubborn.
*Reynie – our main character – is a puzzle solver, who sees how things fit together.

They are all geniuses, all different, all sad, and they form a deep bond.

If it is right for you, I hope you enjoy this silly, serious story.

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All the Right Stuff to get me thinking about philosophy…

All the Right StuffAll the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the phenomenal Walter Dean Myers’s book All the Right Stuff arrived in my mailbox, I had no idea I was about to be schooled in the philosophical idea of the social contract.

I’m used to Myers’s thoughtful but action-packed stories – this one was a beautifully, humanely written contemplation of the systems that can help us or hurt as as we go through life, and the messy combination of injustice and opportunity we all face to varying degrees.

I don’t dig philosophical writing, generally. I’ve read some – mostly old. I’ve enjoyed more contemporary considerations of specific topics, of the sort offered on the radio program Philosophy Talk or in bell hooks’s writing. This book, however, read like a contemporary take on a Greek philosophic text. Myers has characters who literally debate their varying view points, and the youth in the center who is gradually forming his own opinion.

The two opposing views come from Elijiah, who makes homemade soups for seniors at his “Soup Emporium,” and Sly, who has a shiny car, a bodyguard, and a new business venture of his own, also with the espoused aim of helping the Harlem community they all live in. Both men are highly intelligent and gifted speakers who have gathered a following of sorts.

Then, we have the chorus – four of the seniors from Elijiah’s emporium, and four hard luck cases Sly has befriended. With this format, Myers has brought a Greek-style philosophical dialogue into Harlem and brought it to life with modern examples and counterexamples that are perfectly, empathy-inspiring-ly real.

Meanwhile, Paul DuPree is the teen protagonist at the middle of it all, mentoring a teen mom on her basketball game and dealing with the death of his father and his relationship with his mother.

I was spellbound by it, and by the end I was thinking hard (although maybe not as hard as the impressive Paul DuPree). I was thinking about life, and how what this book had to say aligned with “ah-hah” moments I’ve had via psychology, or what I’ve seen as an organizer when I heard people’s stories and we worked together to make something change.

I was also thinking about who I’d give it to. It’s not for everyone, but I came up with a good list of people who I know are searchers and are open to philosophical ideas applied in their daily life.

Oh, and I also have some good soup and stew ideas now, too. 🙂

I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

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The Princess and The Goblin: Retro Review for the Nerdy Book Club!!!

Welcome, any Nerdy Book Club visitors! To any friends visiting, I am proud to be able to link to this post on my favorite blog, The Nerdy Book Club. This is the same post, except for this note. If you want to read this book, you can read it online for free – it is in the public domain. There’s a “Read It” button below the cover on the Goodreads page, if you want to check it out.

Once upon a time, deep in Amish country, a little girl fell in love with the fantastical adventures found in her books, especially the children’s stories by C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. The little girl grew older, moved three thousand miles across the country, and discovered countless other books. Still, once or twice a year, she would open an old book and sink into the story, pulling it all around her like the warmest, softest down comforter in the world.

Of course, I am who that little girl grew into. When I was invited to write a Retro Review, I jumped up and down a few times and then chose to write a Retro Review about one of my beloved “time machines.” Miraculously, instantaneously, this time machine can transport me back to my converted attic bedroom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania or to a deliciously elicit 12am-on-a-school-night reading fest in our tiny house in Oregon City.

Here is a photo of the time machine in question:
The Princess and Curdie, 1964 Paperback

I am a Nerdy Book Club nerd; I read the blog religiously each morning. So, I knew I couldn’t do right by my task if I re-read my “time machine” copy of the book, because my memories lie interleaved in its pages, coloring my perceptions. So, I picked up a library copy for a fresh perspective. Here it is with my darling old one:
Something Old, Something Borrowed

And – I’ll be honest – it took me a few pages to get over the different edition. You know when you walk into your old high school and it’s been renovated but still has the same layout, and the posters are different yet familiar? The first two chapters were like that: uncanny. Unsettling.

Here’s the Princess and her King-Papa. The colored print is from the newer edition I picked up at the library; the black and white die cuts are much older.
New King-Papa
Old King-Papa

However, that feeling quickly faded. It doesn’t matter what window-dressing illustrations come with it, or whether or not the edition includes awkward introductory asides. The Princess and the Goblin is wonderful. It stands the test of time.

Yes, the language and the pacing are not contemporary – after all, it was published in 1872. Young readers still love monsters, princesses, and adventures. (Don’t we all? I know I do.) Especially when they are presented in a fresh, inventive, and honest way.

Sometimes, older texts feel staid because of the way they reflect the mores of their time. For instance, implicit sexism – negative or weak roles for women – can make a story less appealing to me. I did not have that problem with George MacDonald, because he did not write about weak, silly women. From my experience, he writes strong women better and more consistently than C.S. Lewis, who did pretty well, himself.

One of his strong female characters is the eponymous eight year old princess, Irene. She is and is written to be young, but she is courageous and good-hearted, and does as much rescuing as she gets rescued. She does receive help from a magical and omnipotent source, but if that discounts heroic efforts, you’ll find literature is a little scarce on “real” heroes. 🙂 In any case, she isn’t afraid to injure and dirty her hands digging at rocks for hours for the cause, which is impressive for any 8-year old, let alone a pampered princess!

Strong female number two is Princess Irene’s great-great grandmother, the ancient and striking woman who guides the heroes from her tower in a way that Gandalf will imitate in future literature, providing tools and opportunities throughout the story.

The third strong female is the mother of Curdie, the little miner boy who is the secondary protagonist to Princess Irene (SPOILER: Curdie is who the Princess rescues! He does get to rescue her one time, too, but you’ll have to read it and see who you think has the more impressive rescue…)

I love Curdie’s parents. They remind me of Linda Urban’s incredibly subtle, supportive and inspirational role models, the parents in A Crooked Kind of Perfect and the uncle in Hound Dog True. Curdie’s parents are more lightly drawn and less poetic, of course, but they have a similar energy. In her way, Curdie’s mother is just as impressive as the royal Irenes, and she plays a quiet yet crucial role in the story.

Not to lose sight of the action in the midst of my historical gender considerations, this book, of course, features exciting, goblin-related adventures. In fact, Curdie uncovers and tries to stop not one but TWO fiendish plots that the goblins have hatched!

When the book opens, the Princess has been kept in the dark about the very existence of goblins, let alone their dangerous grudge against the royal family… Meanwhile, Curdie is the most adept, among the miners, at inventing songs to rout out the foul creatures. Thus, it is obvious they must cross paths with each other (and with the goblins!) They do, and – as the book continues and schemes are revealed and enacted – the stakes are raised. Deaths are defied. Curdie’s faith in Princess Irene’s honesty and her own patience with those who do not believe her are solely tested.

In addition to the plot, MacDonald’s story is suffused with his belief in the possibilities of people. His message of seeking to be your best self is one that continues to ring true today, and in his gender-balanced and plot-driven novel, there is nothing to tarnish it. Humans today still need to work hard, to be forgiving, and to trust each other.

In summation, The Princess and the Goblin is a wonderful story I would recommend as a read aloud with an older or bolder young child or for curious readers of any age. Personally, I’d recommend a copy with the original black and white die cut illustrations, but you take your pick! Here are two final examples, featuring Curdie, the Princess, and an irritated Lootie:

Color Version: the Princess and Curdie
B&W Version: the Princess and Curdie

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Magical Mr. MacDonald

On Thursday, my favorite blog will have a post from me! It is a Retro Review of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. I had a ton of fun re-reading The Princess and the Goblin, and I also re-read the sequel (The Princess and Curdie), read MacDonald’s short story “The Light Princess” for the first time, and googled George MacDonald to learn more about him. Thus, this is my spillover post, featuring what I learned about this author who was so important to me as a child.

A picture of George MacDonald, who lived 1824-1905.
George MacDonald

Here are my favorite facts about MacDonald that I picked up from introductions to the books, his Wikipedia page, and a couple of author biographies.

1. Three of my other favorite authors were inspired by MacDOnald’s work! According to my reading, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle all found George MacDonald’s reimagining of older fairy tale tropes instrumental for their own wonderful creations.

2. One of the most influential children’s books of all time was written by a reverend who was friends with and mentored by George MacDonald. MacDonald encouraged him to keep writing, as did his 11 children (can you tell he liked children? Wow!), and that family friend published Alice in Wonderland with the penname of Lewis Carroll. (!)

3. MacDonald was originally a minister, but his views were too humanist for his church; he did not buy the idea that you either were in or were out of heaven (the Calvinist predestination doctrine), and that you couldn’t really do much about it – just work to keep your seat if you’d been elected. Reading his books, where he constantly writes about people’s capacity to grow and improve, you can see how he would chafe under the doctrine of predestination. I think it’s fascinating that he was booted from preaching and instead turned to writing fairy stories and helping to spark a whole fantasy genre.

4. He was totally in a Nerdy Book Club of his own! Or, a Nerdy&Awesome Writer’s Club, really. I guess writers all knew each other, so while he and Mark Twain took a while to become friends (frenemies, perhaps?), MacDonald knew all the literary folk of his day, brushing elbows with Tennyson, Dickens, and more.

If you choose to read more MacDonald, there is a sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, but it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the first book (read my post Thursday to see what I thought about The Princess & the Goblin…)

The Princess and Curdie
The Princess and Curdie is heavy on the moralizing, and MacDonald spoils his story’s ending completely and depressingly in the last paragraph. On the plus side, you find out what happens to Curdie and the Irenes post-Goblin, and it features marvelous, monstrous animals who would have been worthy of illustration by the late, great Maurice Sendak.

The Light Princess
Or, check out a very light read: MacDonald’s short story “The Light Princess.” It is the silly tale of a princess cursed to possess no gravity (of either kind! Haha, it’s a pun because she’s not serious and the earth’s gravity doesn’t work on her!). Of course, you can always read Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, too, who follow beautifully in MacDonald’s footsteps. (L’Engle’s amazing books go off in a different direction with their science fiction take, while Lewis & Tolkien’s stories inhabit the same sorts of fantastical worlds as MacDonald’s.)

I can’t speak to the merits of At the Back of the North Wind, which I loved as a child, but I’ll let you know when I get around to re-reading it. Visit the Nerdy Book Club, today and everyday – but on 5/17/12 it will have a post from me! 🙂

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