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02 December 2010

Book Review: The 39 Clues

The Maze of Bones (39 Clues, #1)The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Da Vinci Code for kids.  A longer version of the Westing Game.  It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in book form with slightly less slapstick.  Fiction infused with history presented in a meaningful way that might stick.  Heroine loves to read.  Hero good at math.  Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay about the possibility of  doing research that could result improving the odor of human flatulence and invented Sudoku.

Yeah, I'll read the whole set.  And my kid is going to love them.

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28 November 2010

Book Review: Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern LifeAngels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gopnik's thesis is not proven in this short collection of long essays.  Not in the slightest.  But that doesn't mean this book isn't worth reading.  Rather than a sensible step-by-step building of connective tissue, an evolution of an idea, you might say, Gopnik wanders about and repeats himself and never really makes anything concise or clear.  I did not leave this book thinking, "Yes!  Darwin and Lincoln WERE midwives to the spirit of a new world! They DID reshape our understanding of what life is and how it attains meaning!"  That Darwin and Lincoln were amazing harbingers of the next is a given but Gopnik doesn't really till new ground in demonstrating the idea.   He does, however, bring up some interesting tidbits for deep thought and these, alone, make the book worth reading.   For example;

"We can find plenty of astonishing ideas in that day, just as we will find traces of the astonishing ideas of the next century somewhere on the fringes of our own time."

"...these styles [the writing styles of Darwin and Lincoln] have in common the writer's faith in plain English, his hope that people's minds and hearts can be altered by the slow crawl of fact as much as by the long reach of revelation."

"The attempt to make Lincoln into just one more racist is part of the now common attempt to introduce a noxious equilibrium between minds and parties; liberals who struggle with their own prejudices are somehow equal in prejudice to those who never took the trouble to make the struggle.  Imperfect effort at being just is no different than perfect indifference to it ... a good man who plays footsie for an evening under the table with a single bad idea becomes the equal of a man who spends a lifetime sharing a slovenly bed with an evil ideology."

For Kazin [a Lincoln biographer], Lincoln's God is neither the God of confident Christendom nor the punishing God of the Calvinist imagination but the God of both Job and John Donne, the God who is the stenographic name for the absolute mystery of being alive and watching men suffer while still holding in mind ideals that ennoble the suffering and in some strange way make sense of it."

"[On the Origin of Species] is both an explanation of evolution, an old idea, and a theory of natural selection, a new one.  If you concentrated on the evolutionary part, which is, as Darwin knew, an old and long-present idea, one of Granddad's tall tales, then you could make it into a kind of progressivism--an explanation of eternal change and social improvement with a vitalist charge.  If you concentrated on the natural selection part, the struggle for survival, you could make it into an endorsement of free markets or imperialism ..."

"People are different, in Darwin's view--he thought there were savages, primitives, at one end and civilized people at another--but what knit them all together was the habit of sympathy, which could be extended wherever, and as far as, we chose to place it."

"We should not judge the past by the standards of the present.  Darwin wrote about "savages";  we wouldn't.  (But then, we use words that our great-grandchildren will be shocked by, too--though which ones:  wife?  veal chops?)"

"...we are allowed only a tiny glimpse, in our hummingbird lives, of what duration and endurance and repetition can actually achieve.  We have a moral and scientific duty to seek out those places--coral reefs and earthworm-plowed fields as well as fossil pits and mussel-moved mountains--where we can get at least a sense of how an earthworm can do a farmer's work, if you give him time."

"The tragedy of life is not that there is no God but that the generations through which it progresses are too tiny to count very much.  There isn't a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows."

"The pacifists are not always right.  But the warmongers are almost always wrong."

"Science lets us think big but we still feel small.  No cosmologist has ever felt more serenely about his tenure case by contemplating the vastness of the universe.  We get the big picture, but it's not where we live."

Just using these ideas as jumping off points for thought and further reading make Gopnik's book more than a worthwhile way to spend a few hours' time.

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16 November 2010

Too Soon

I woke up this morning while it was still dark.  I lay in bed for a while, willing the fleeting muse of sleep to return but, when it didn't, I sat up.   I don't keep a clock near my bed and, since I was thirsty, I got up and wandered downstairs to see what time it was and to sit on the couch while sipping on a glass of ice water.

My husband's computer was open and, wanting company in my sleeplessness, I woke it from its peaceful slumber by deftly touching the mousepad as I passed.  It grunted that electronic grunt of MacBooks lurching out of hibernation but brightened considerably in the next few moments and presented my husband's Facebook page for my perusal.

I scrolled through the updates of his Facebook connections, logged out, then logged into my Facebook account.

And what I saw there guaranteed that I would not sleep again easily.

So let me back up.

When my son was two years old we enrolled him in a Parent's Day Out program two days a week.  His classroom was supervised by a stern hispanic woman named Helen who strenuously discouraged any whiff of mollycoddling and lectured me numerous times on the ridiculousness of my insistence that I pick my son up at noon and take him home for his afternoon nap.

Then one day another parent was there at noon to pick up his son, a new kid in class.  We chatted a bit and I warned this dad that Helen would shake her finger at him for not allowing his child to stay with the other kids until late afternoon.  He smiled and revealed that he'd already been on the receiving end of the lecture.  We laughed then I asked what his son's name was.  He told me.  Same name as my son.  We smiled again.  Then we discovered that we both had the same last initial, which would certainly confuse things as they tried to label clothing and art work.  We laughed  again and predicted that Helen would insist that one of us change our last names or the name of our child.

Helen didn't, of course, though she probably wanted to.  And, in the meantime, we had formed a cursory acquaintance with this family;  I knew the mother slightly, I found out later, through music circles and we would always chat in passing about the difficulties and joys of child rearing.

Then we went our separate ways to different preschool choices.  I would think of this family once in a while when I told Helen stories, but their child, who shared a name with mine, was a part of my past.  I never ran into either the mom or the dad and they faded to the back of my mind.

Until about a year ago when I found out their son had leukemia.  I felt the wind leave my lungs as a mutual acquaintance told me that this six year old kid was fighting the fight of his life.  I shook my head in disbelief but then defaulted to "He's young, he's strong, he'll beat it."

And the periodic updates I got through mutual friends proved me right.  For a while.

Then this weekend, a mutual friend told me the family had signed a DNR.

And then this morning, another mutual friend posted on Facebook that this young seven year-old had lost his brave fight.

I sat devastated.  My first instinct was to try to DO something, though I knew not what.  My second instinct was to feel guilty that I had not paid more attention, been more help, done something more while he was sick.  Though, again, I knew not what.  What could I have done?  I am basically a stranger to this family.

But I feel a kinship.  A connection.  Because their son could be my son.

They shared a name.

They were the same age.

It could have been us.

And why wasn't it us?  Why did my family roll the dice with more luck than his family?  How was he chosen for suffering while my son wiles away his days, blissfully unaware of sorrow, pain and personal tragedy?

I am lost today.  I want to apologize for having a healthy child and at the same time I want to shout on the rooftops about how amazingly lucky I am.  I want to hug my kid hard and impress upon him how favored and fortunate we are.  I want to bellow importantly at everyone I see to tell them that it is paramount that they take time to appreciate those closest to them.  And I want this young boy's family to somehow find peace.

My husband and I are relative secularists when it comes to ideas of the afterlife;  neither of us buy into the Swedenborg idea of heaven as a more glorious suburb of one's present life but we don't really have a replacement myth, either, so our stock phrase when someone dies is, "Well, they had a good run."  When I told my husband about this lost child this morning, he said, "Seven years is not a good run."

Damn straight it's not.

And though it is selfish and self-centered to realize,  the tragedy of this family has served to embed my vast fortune into the depths of my psyche.  I am lucky.  I may not be lucky forever, but I am lucky right now and damn if I'm not going to spend the rest of the day, the rest of my life, appreciating it.

And then, in the midst of all these emotions, my sister-in-law called to tell me she was in labor.  One life begins.  Another ends.

But too soon.  Too damned soon.

06 October 2010

Book Review: Igraine the Brave

Igraine the BraveIgraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice little romp with no scary, questionable material but still enough excitement and intrigue and magic to keep a young kid occupied.  Lovely intermittent illustrations, too.  Not great literature but a wonderful diverson and a really good read-aloud for younger kids.

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05 October 2010

Book Review: Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York

Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New YorkThrough the Children's Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh Adam Gopnik.  How in love I once was with you.  How amazed I was with your facility to dig into layers of everyday life and come up with wise genius.  How many times did I read aloud to friends your original New Yorker "Bumping Into Ravioli" essay?

I still may be in love with you, but this book tested my love, much like Cupid tested Psyche; I turned on the light to see you and you ran away, leaving only a poorly edited, slapped-together published collection of essays to remember you by.  You even messed with my beloved Ravioli.  Why would you do such a thing?

And perhaps, Adam, I still love you but choose not to love one of your books.  That is indeed possible.  It may, Adam, not even be your fault, as this tome is so New York as to be inconceivable to one who doesn't love New York as you do.  Which I categorically do not.

Don't get me wrong, Adam.  I read the whole thing.  And I found many phrases and thoughts to be ponder-worthy.  Sadly, some of those phrases and thoughts were repeated, almost verbatim, in different essays, a fault that lies not with you, perhaps, but with your editors.  Or with your publishers, who put you on deadline.

But even in this slipshod collection of words, your amazing clever wisdom peeks out every once in a great while;

"In my experience, at least, it is the liberal parents who tend to be the most socially conservative-the most queasy at the endless ribbon of violence and squalor that passes for American entertainment, more concerned to protect their children from it.  One might have the impression that it is the Upper West Side atheist and the Lancaster County Amish who dispute the prize for who can be most obsessive about having the children around the table at six p.m. for a homemade dinner from farm-raised food."

"The art of child rearing, of parenting, is to center the children and then knock them off center; to make them believe that they are safely anchored in the middle of a secure world and somehow also to let them know that the world they live in is not a fixed sphere with them at the center; that they stand instead alongside a river of history, of older souls, that rushes by them, where they are only a single small incident.  To make them believe that they can rule all creation, while making them respect the malevolent forces that can ruin every garden:  That is the task."

"Childhood is just like life, only ten times faster."

"We didn't make the children fly.  We simply lowered the heavens and told them they were flying, as we always do."

In conclusion, Adam, I choose to still love you.  I will lay this book aside and convince myself to still gasp in excited anticipation when I see your name affixed to an article in the New Yorker table of contents.  I will give you a second chance.  And, probably, a third chance, too, if need be.  Because I know how good you can be.

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Book Review: A Wrinkle In Time

A Wrinkle in Time (Time, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another well-loved children's book that I came to late in life.

And I liked it.  But I wanted more description.  More understanding.

Of course, maybe leaving the descriptions sketchy was exactly what L'Engle had in mind, allowing my mind, my prejudices, my life experiences to fill in the gap.

"You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

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24 September 2010

Book Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a perfect book.  I don't know that I can say much more about it than that.  Well written, beautifully crafted, engaging, thoughtful, tessering.  Perfect.

"Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.  It's like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten.  And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to."

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Book Review: First Light

First LightFirst Light by Rebecca Stead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For better or worse, this book reminded me of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. And not in any way except that Stead created a secondary world that was entirely science fiction and entirely believable.  A world that was more advanced than ours in ways but held onto a primitive ideal at the same time.  A cold world.  With humans and wild creatures as intimate companions.

But there's where the similarities ended.  Stead has no agenda.  She's simply telling a story.  A very, very good story. She's a fine writer and I look forward to more from her pen.

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18 August 2010

Book Review: The Possessed

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read ThemElif Batuman 
I find it amusing that most people have probably picked up this book because it was featured on an NPR reading list; one that purported to focus on laugh-out-loud funny reads, an illusion perpetuated by the whimsical Roz Chast cover illustration. 

This book was not laugh-out-loud funny. It did have sentences like "The endless proliferating monk may be read as a figure for scholarly mimetic contagion" as well as words like "patronymic," thrown out into the prose without explanation, expecting the reader to have deep familiarity with the concept. 

But, thankfully, Batuman is a fine writer. Early in the book, she soliloquizes on a writers' workshop she once attended; one designed, she thought, to make writing "a matter of overcoming bad habits - of omitting needless words." Thank goodness she didn't ascribe to this philosophy of writing because though her book is peppered with dense, incomprehensible lit crit and philosophical mumbojumbo, sentences like "Miguel stood out from among the other library workers, who fit a more or less Dostoevskian mold: a tiny old woman whose organism seemed designed to combine maximum disgruntledness with minimum body mass ..." more than made up for the moments, the many moments, in which I had no idea what she was talking about.

Book Review: Dragon Rider

Dragon Rider - Cornelia Funke
Funke creates a nice parallel world within our own world, something that always, when done well, tickles my fancy. Not a brilliant book but readable, exciting and with moral fiber and how-to-be lessons. 

By the by, it took me two days to read it. My kid started it this morning and finished it by 2pm. I'm in big trouble.

Book Review: Juliet Dove Queen of Love

Juliet Dove, Queen of Love (Magic Shop, #3) Bruce Coville 
I liked this much more than I expected to. I read it because I have been looking for age appropriate fiction based on Greek mythology for my six year old. He's not ready for Percy Jackson quite yet and I assumed this book would be too pre-teeny for him, what with being about a shy 6th grader who suddenly has the power of Cupid around her neck. 

But Coville handles it without the schlock one usually finds in pre-teeny novels and, surprisingly, it's an intriguing book with enough placid adventure to make it perfect for the current mindset and interests of my kid.

Book Review: Dead End Gene Pool

Dead End Gene Pool  - Wendy Burden

I don't usually read tell-all autobiographies, particularly ones that seem to be penned in that style that is currently populated so effectively by Chelsea Handler. Yet that is exactly what this book purported to be. It was only at NPR's urging that I picked it up this morning. 

And it was what I expected, with that telltale sign "please let this be a best seller" with episodes of bad behavior topped upon bad behavior topped upon bad behavior plied with alcohol, drugs and more bad behavior, with some name dropping and then more bad behavoir, plied for laughs and, once in a while, for pity. 

Except this book was marvelously penned; her ability to put words together in wonderfully witty and immediately poetic order was marvelous. Burden's knack for description and painting a scene is revelatory. I just wish she had picked a different subject (though they say to write what you know) because this was one of those books wherein I just wanted to sit every single character down and give them each a good, hearty slap and a talking to.

Book Review: Five Children and It

Five Children and ItE. Nesbit
Nesbit is the grandmother of children's fantasy literature. Written in 1902, Five Children and It can be considered to have inspired many who came later, including Edward Eager, whose Tales of Magic series owes a great debt to Nesbit (this Eager freely admits) 
The book shows its age but it is much more accessible than the other books I've read that she penned. Five siblings find a creature who will grant one wish a day and madcap hilarity ensues, replete with political incorrectness and references that are not now common knowledge. None of this gets in the way of enjoyment, however (though knowledge that the word "slut" was more commonly used to mean "slatternly" and "lazy" in the early 20th century might be useful) 

Nesbit's voice is entertaining, whimsical and slightly snide. For example, when the children meet the creature it introduces itself as a "Psammead." The creature says, "You mean to tell me seriously you don't know a Psammead when you see one?" "A Sammyadd? That's Greek to me," says one of the children. "So it is to everyone," said the creature sharply. 

She also launches into off-subject asides that are either tiresome or diverting, depending on one's mood at the time. For example; 

Everyone began to talk at once. If you had been there you could not possibly have made head or tail of the talk, but these children were used to talking 'by fours', as soldiers march, and each of them could say what it had to say quite comfortably, and listen to the agreeable sound of its own voice, and at the same time have three-quarters of two sharp ears to spare for listening to what the others said. That is an easy example in multiplication of vulgar fractions, but, as I daresay you can't do even that, I won't ask you to tell me whether 3/4 x 2 = 1 and 1/2, but I will ask you to believe me that this was the amount of ear each child was able to lend to the others. Lending ears was common in Roman times, as we learn from Shakespeare; but I fear I am getting too instructive. 

Overall, a lovely dalliance. 

And, just because I'm also currently reading Narnia, I must express my frustration with the hold that the series has over children's literature. In the Nesbit biography on the front flap, Nesbit is described thusly; "One of her most admired abilities as a writer is the combination - often with more than a pinch of humour - of a real-life situation with elements of magical fantasy. Five Children and It is perhaps the most famous of her books to display this Narnia-like combination." 

Do be reminded that Five Children and It was published starting in 1901. Lewis didn't start the Narnia series until 1949. If anything, the Narnia series displays a Nesbit-like combination. 

That is all. As you were. 

Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

In what order should these be read?  Publication? Composition?  Chronological?

This review is listed in the Chronological-by-Narnia-events order in which they are now published.  I read them in a slightly different order;  I'll call it the "Krista-is-confused-and-grumpy-that-she-has-to-research-so-much-crap-to-discover-how-to-read-seven-damn-books" Order;  The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Last Battle.

The Magician's Nephew
I didn't enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. At all. 

Ergo, I never read The Magician's Nephew because, back in the olden days, it was the sixth book in the series and I never made it that far, petering out halfway through Dawn Treader. 

Now, of course, it is the first. So I read it first on this mid-life journey through these well-loved books that I've never loved, let alone well. 

However, I did enjoy this book more than I expected to, having preconceived notions and fears about the mannered clunkydom and inconsistent narrative prevalent in the rest of the series. 

It was mannered as heck, to be sure. And I despised it for a good long time. But I did have a surprising amount of joy in finding the answers to why the lamp post is there. And why the Professor was so sure Lucy was truthful. And why Narnia came to be. 

And, truth be told, the creation myth of Narnia is one of the more beautifully woven myths I've ever read.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
I may be sought out and lynched once this review hits the interwebs but, for me, there's not much to this book worth recommending. And it's not just because I've lost my whimsey as I've aged. I didn't find it engaging as a child, either. Even then, at the tender age of eight or nine, I remember thinking, "Did anyone else read this before he published it?" I had the same thoughts during this read-through; a disjunct tapestry, at moments beautifully woven with fine silk and at other moments slapped together loosely with rough-hewn yarn. The author's voice wanders about, trying out styles like they are hors d'oeuvres at a fancy party at which you feel self-conscious about ingesting too much of anything for fear of being thought a glutton.

There are clever bits, to be sure. And I won't even bother to discourse about the Christian symbolism and allegory about which even C.S. Lewis was of two minds as to whether they were purposefully written or not.

But it didn't captivate me. Certainly it has its place as an inspiration to countless other writers and storytellers. That isn't something to sneeze at.

The dedication was endearing as hell and I found myself wishing the book lived up to the voice Lewis used to write it.

And I wonder if anyone anywhere has done a count as to the number of times C.S. Lewis uses the phrase "ten to one" in this book. If they haven't, they should.

The Horse and His Boy
My favorite Narnia book so far! I loved the descriptions and the fully-rendered story. The characters were also much more likable than in previous books.

And perhaps I am simply growing used to the Lewis style, but I thought the mannerism and stiffness of the prose was less stringent in this book than in the others.

The moral of the story of this one, ignoring the Christian context, seems to be "... if you do a good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one."

And I laughed out loud at the following (which contains a spoiler, incidentally)

"Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I'm afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently." 

Prince Caspian
I found this book to be strong from a story-telling point of view but only in the portions where Prince Caspian's story was told in flashback; once the story returned to the Pevensie children, it lost me again in a whitewash of too much plot told in too few words leaving too many holes and too many questions. Which is perhaps the point?

There's something about these books that only hints at epic; perhaps it becomes epic when one has read them enough times to fill in the holes for oneself but, on first reading, it seems only a draft sketch rather than a full-fledged chronicle.

I did enjoy two quotes immensely;

When the children are discussing that they, like genies, can be summoned at any time, Edmund says, "Golly! It's a bit uncomfortable to know that we can be whistled for like that. It's worse than what Father says about living at the mercy of the telephone." Imagine what poor Edmund's father would be thinking in our current world.

Later, as if in answer to all the critics who would call him a sexist pig, Lewis puts these words in the mouths of babes;
"That's the worst of girls," said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. "They never carry a map in their heads."
"That's because our heads have something inside them," said Lucy.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Still wishing the descriptions and adventures were more fleshed out. Lewis's AD/HD style of wanting to move on before really getting to the heart of the matter suits this book well, as it is, in a sense, a travel log of people who move on before they get to the heart of the matter.

I enjoyed the introduction of Eustace, one of those characters, found often in books aimed at children, built specifically to sketch moral lessons on how not to be (like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Susan in Prince Caspian). Unlike his handling of the children in the previous books, Lewis presents Eustace well; both his sin and his redemption are sketched without the level of preachy and tsk-y that one might expect. Instead, Lewis infuses him with laugh-out-loud ridiculousness right alongside his nastiness. The opening line of the book sets the tone for how Lewis will handle him; "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Where you found yourself wanting to punish Edmund, quite severely, in the first (or second) book and slap whiny Susan in the third (or fifth) book, with Eustace you just want to laugh at his cheek and do a quick check of yourself to make sure you are free of traits like his. It's almost a shame when he reforms, really.

The Silver Chair
I'm sure it would be tiresome to mention that this book annoyed me in the same way that the final book of Pullman's His Dark Materials did but there it is. Don't beat me over the head with your depiction of the Underworld, Underlands or whatever you want to call it, and the powers of darkness. I get it.

And the children in this one were bleak and beastly; I didn't like either of them and it's hard to care about characters you don't really like. I grew to like Puddleglum but I wanted to throw the book out the window during the first 20 pages of his presence in it. Thank goodness it was 100 degrees outside and the windows were closed.

AND (yes, there's more) Lewis gets a little heavy handed with the hints that everyone who is not a Christian is worthless (particularly when describing the school the children attend, writing something about how the main problem with it is that no one there knows what the Bible is); nettlesome.

However, despite all of that, the adventure was readable and interesting. As always.

The Last Battle

Two things in this book surprised me. The first was the fact that it seemed complete; like Lewis actually took some time about crafting the story line and filling out the line with details that made it a story worth reading. At least until Aslan finally showed up; then it returned to the tried-and-true sketchy storytelling that seems par for the course in the series.

The second was a moment that almost smacked of religious pluralism ... almost. Good deeds done in anyone's name are good deeds done in God's name. Of course, God has to have a particular name but I do admit to raised eyebrows of gratified surprise that Lewis gives non-believers that free pass.

But then ... and here comes a big fat spoiler. Stop reading now if you don't know that ...

THEY ALL DIE IN A TRAIN CRASH? What the hell kind of ending is that? And how could Lewis have been so heartlessly cavalier and brief and matter-of-fact about his manner of presenting this great tragedy?

And what the hell is the meaning of leaving Susan out of eternal bliss simply because she's currently enamored with lipstick?

And I guess, for staunch Christians, eternal life is their highest aim. Of course it is. But to dismiss the value of life on earth, or in Narnia, because they are only "shadowlands" is, I think, a piss poor message for a book that claims to be for children. Give us a little more of the doing good deeds part and less about the fact that it all doesn't matter in the end, anyway, as long as you are a true believer. If you believe you can act any damn way you please and, by the way, dying ain't no big deal. So go ahead and don't be careful or anything. Deal?

And I guess I wouldn't be nearly as irked if that wasn't the very part and parcel of why Christianity, or any religion, really, gives me pause.

All of that said, it was the most "epic" of the Chronicle books and captivated me moreso than any other, save The Horse and His Boy

And now, having read the whole series, I look at the individual books differently. As I am supposed to, I guess. And the story arc displays craft in design if not always in full-fledged execution.

But the ending ... the ending. Wow, Jack. Were you on deadline? 

05 July 2010

Book Review: Word After Word After Word

Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan

One of those books I might begin to refer to as "little lovlies;" in the same realm as Creech's Love That Dog, not in subject matter but in its honest depiction of the meaningful emotional journeys children undertake and its conviction that those small journeys are consequential. Which they are. 

Book Review: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

A wonderfully charming, witty and entertaining book, written in a voice that is reminiscent of those wonderful Victorian authors who wrote about plucky women. Wood has mastered that Victorian style of reader-aside that, for this adult reader, made the book wholly worthwhile.

Extraordinarily busy places are often compared to beehives, and if you have ever seen the inside of a beehive, you already know why this is so. (It is not necessary to actually set foot inside of a beehive to confirm this, by the way. They are too small and too full of bees for in-person tours to be truly convenient. But there are alternatives: One could peer inside using some sort of periscopelike magnifying device, for example. Or one could simply accept that beehives are busy and get on with it. This second option is called "suspending one's disbelief," and it is by far the easiest row to hoe, now and at other times too.

Eavesdropping rarely leads to the desired result. One hides under the bed hoping to discover whether or not a surprise party is being planned for one's birthday, and instead learns that indeed there was, but the festivities have been canceled due to one's cousins all coming down with pinkeye simultaneously. The danger and dust bunnies are hardly worth the trouble. Penelope knew this, but in her defense it should be noted that she had not planned to eavesdrop in the first place. The experience had been thrust upon her with no warning, as if she were a character in a comedic French play.

As you may know, complimentary remarks of this type are all too often made by well-meaning adults to children who are, to be frank, perfectly ordinary looking. This practice of overstating the case is called hyperbole. Hyperbole is usually harmless, but in some cases it has been known to precipitate unnecessary wars as well as a painful gaseous condition called stock market bubbles. For safety's sake, then, hyperbole should be used with restraint and only by those with the proper literary training.

The no-nonsense Victorian nanny moments tucked within the nonsensical plot are endearing, as well.

Now I am well aware that being raised by wolves can be considered an undesirable start in life. But truly, which of us do not have obstacles to overcome? Whining--or howling or what you please--is not the solution to any of life's problems. I realize there have been challenges. I assure you there will be more. Abandoned in the forest as infants, suckled by ferocious smelly animals, forced to wear uncomfortable party outfits, and made to learn to dance the schottische--this is simply the way life goes. Hands must be washed before dinner nevertheless. Please and thank you must be said, and playthings must be put away when you are done with them. Are we agreed?

And then there are the brief moments with a philosophical bent;

...the mystery of not knowing what one's future held paled next to the mystery of not knowing all that one's past already contained

I suppose this is what is meant by 'growing up.' Finding out the difference between what one expected one's life would be like and how things really are.

Whether this book will appeal to children, specifically my child, remains to be seen. I shall read it to him in 2011, when the already planned sequel has been released, because this book doesn't so much end as write itself into a frenzy and then abruptly stop, like an potboiler told by one who has suddenly developed a devilish tickle in his throat. You wait for the story to continue as its teller drinks some water and wipes the tears from his eyes. If the story appeals to my kid, he'll want to keep going. Immediately. So we wait.

I do think he'll like it, however, as it seems to be readable on many levels. It is an endearing story, in its way, if outrageous and unexpected.

30 June 2010

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Pullman is an atheist. Let's just get that out of the way right up front. An atheist with a healthy disregard for the modern institution that is the church. 

Let's also get out of the way that the book is a part of The Myths Series, which also includesThe Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood's retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view. A bully pulpit, if the author chooses to use it that way. 

And that Pullman does is no surprise. Pullman's version of the Gospel stories is inevitably unchristian. 

What IS a surprise is that this book was written after the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a Pullman admirer, asked Pullman during a public debate why having tackled God he had neglected to write about Jesus. This book seems to be Pullman's answer to that question. And while the book is, as mentioned above, unchristian, it is not in the least anti-Jesus. 

In the back cover blurb, Pullman writes of this book, "[it is] a story about how stories become stories." And in that, the story is fairly simple: Pullman takes the familiar canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and weaves a retelling; interestingly, this retelling also includes other less well-known Christian gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Protoevangelium of James, which Pullman uses almost verbatim (if such a word can be used in a case like this) at the beginning of the book. 

The gist of the story is this; Mary actually had twins; Jesus, a healthy infant and Christ, a sickly infant.  It is Christ who is found lying in the feeding trough by the shepherds and the wise men. 

The story continues with Christ, the weaker twin, studying holy texts and astounding the elders with his precocious rabbinical wisdom. Jesus learns carpentry from his father and is popular. I confess at many points early in the story, I had to glance back at the title again; yes, he DOES say that Christ is going to be the scoundrel. Ok, back to reading. In a twist that is the harbinger of Pullman's main crux, as the boys reach adulthood, their characters polarize: Christ becomes cautious and fanciful while Jesus is passionate and impulsive. And holy. 

It is Jesus who is baptised by John. It is Jesus who goes into the wilderness for forty days. But it is Christ who fulfills the Satan role in the wilderness, tempting Jesus with the idea of the future church. The back and forth between the two brothers in this chapter is no less than a brilliant abstract into the essence of Pullman's argument with modern Christianity, further abstracted in the selections of the discussion chosen below; 

Christ   Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul. If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He'll believe every word you say from then on. He'll follow you to the ends of the earth. 

Jesus   You think the word of God can be conveyed by conjuring tricks? ... Is that all you've learned from the scriptures? To put on a sensational show for the credulous? You'd do better to forget about that and attend to the real meaning of things. Remember what the scripture says; "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

Christ   What is the real meaning of things, then? 

Jesus   God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is coming soon. 

Christ   But that's exactly what we can demonstrate with miracles. And the Kingdom is a test for us, I'm sure: we must help bring it about...I can see the whole world united in his Kingdom of the faithful ... an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise-elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth! And there would be councils of learned men to discuss and agree on the details of ritual and worship, and even more importantly, to rule on the intricacies of faith, to declare what was to be believed and what was to be shunned...Isn't this a vision worth marveling at, Jesus? Isn't this something to work for with every drop of blood in our bodies? 

Jesus   You phantom. You shadow of a man...Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would come into these magnificent courts and palaces like a poor traveller with dust on his feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, and throw him out into the street. 

So Jesus continues his journey as a holy man. And Christ, bidden by a mysterious stranger (who functions as the evil impetus behind the distortion of Jesus’s teachings into the founding of the modern Christian Church) follows him and records his words and actions. 

And at some point, Christ begins to edit, of which the stranger approves. 

Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding. In fact, I want you to continue. Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time so that we can begin the work of interpretation. 

And so the story continues, with some of the famous miracles explained (the loaves and fishes turns out to be just Jesus convincing the crowd to share with each other, no less of a miracle, in some ways, than producing food out of thin air) and some left to stand as simple inspiration and hope motivating the lame to walk and the body to heal. 

The stranger reappears periodically with little nuggets like "What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom that what was" and Christ continues to edit and fabricate the story. 

And when you come to assemble the history of what the world is living through now, you will add to the outward and visible events their inward and spiritual significance; so, for example, when you look down on the story as God looks down on time, you will be able to have Jesus foretell to his disciples, as it were in truth, the events to come of which, in history, he was unaware. 

And so Pullman weaves his tale of the good man Jesus, who never claimed to be anything but a prophet of how the world could be if we people were any damn good. And the scoundrel Christ fabricates the history to fit the vision of the future Church, the tangible symbol of a Kingdom of God that will never arrive on earth. 

As the story builds to the crucifixion, one waits for the scene in the garden at Gethsemane, where Jesus goes to pray. And, true to form, Pullman has Jesus decrying God's absence; he has been preaching and teaching and giving and, still, no word directly from God. As Jesus prays, he questions and he waits for some answer, some sign. He hears the sounds of life progressing, a dog barking, an owl hooting, an insect chirping, but, 

If I thought you were in those sounds I could love you with all my heart, even if those were the only sounds you made. But you're in the silence. You say nothing. God, is there any difference between saying that and saying you're not there at all? I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers' eyes: "God's great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence", or some such drivel. The people will hear his words, and think how clever he is to say such things, and they'll try to believe it; and they'll go home puzzled and hungry, because it makes no sense at all. That priest is worse than the fool in the psalm, who at least is an honest man. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God's great absence means he's not bloody well there. 

Jesus continues his one-sided conversation to sketch how he feels Christ's vision of the church would inevitably become an instrument of torture and control for greedy men and a sanctuary for secretly lustful men who would take advantage of the innocent. This is vintage Pullman; heavy handed and passionate. He hates the church. Of course he does. We knew that before we started this book. 

So one expects that the resurrection will be fabricated, with the twin, Christ, appearing to the followers of Jesus, to inspire them to greatness. Pullman has a little bit of nasty fun with that; the followers of Jesus ask Christ to prove he is Jesus and show them his wounds. He has no wounds but the followers so desperately want to believe that they explain this away. And later, as they are building early Christianity, the story changes again and morphs into the doubting Thomas riff, which means that they had to explain away the broken legs, which the Romans practiced in all crucifixions as a matter of protocol, because if Jesus returned with his wounds intact and his legs had been broken, he wouldn't have been able to walk. So they came up with piercing his side. 

And I wish Pullman hadn't done that. There's no reason to pick a fight like that when the larger lessons he has tried to teach were so well thought out. If Pullman's purpose in this book was to explain how the words of Jesus have evolved into an instrument of oppression, then this little turn was unnecessary. 

Of course, maybe that wasn't Pullman's purpose. Maybe I got out of the book only what I sought to get out of it, ignoring the other lessons I didn't understand or with which I didn't agree. 

And maybe that's the most important lesson of all.

29 June 2010

Book Review: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon (Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III)  by Cressida Cowell

It is probably best that I have NOT seen the Dreamworks film based on this book, as I was able to go into the book without expectation. 

And without expectation, it was an eminently entertaining read. The illustrations are purposefully messy, as is the font, and the book is littered throughout with faux ink blots, just as a young male Viking's journal might be, if the Vikings knew about ink. Or journals. 

And, sure, I could go on and on about the incongruities of the plot based on historical timelines, but what's the point? This is a work of imaginative fiction; Cowell has deliberately created a world that tugs at our ideas of history and throws them on their head at the same time. 

A tad violent and bullies, both of human nature and dragon nature, appear throughout. But the hero prevails and becomes a Hero.