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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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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