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12 June 2010

Book Review: Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (Magic Shop, #2) by Bruce Coville

I started this book with rolled eyes; it begins with 6th grade hijinks of kissy girls, notes read out loud by teachers in class and a contest that Jeremy really wants to win.   Great.    Just great.

But then it got great.    Just great. 

I was unprepared for how heart-rending the relationship between Jeremy and the dragon would be; I expected a kind of funny, bestiary-esque story.   What I got was a love story.   With funny moments, absolutely, but still a love story.   And one thinks, "Are you crazy? A love story? Between a boy and his dragon?"   Yes.   And yes.   And yes.   And it was absolutely wonderful.

Book Review: Kenny and the Dragon

Kenny and the Dragon by Tony DiTerlizzi

I loved this book. From the first sentences, I knew it would be the kind of prose that makes me all giddy;

Many years ago ... Hold on, I know what you are thinking. You're thinking a book about a dragon should start with 'Once upon a time,' But this one doesn't, because frankly, I don't really know what 'Once upon a time' means. Now, I was once upon a horse, and that was fun. Also, I was once upon a knight galloping on his horse, but that's another story altogether. So instead, let me start our tale with this: Once upon a farm, in a town just west from yours, and on a Wednesday many years ago, a rabbit farmer, his wife, and their son, Kenneth, were preparing to sit down to supper.

DiTerlizzi owes an obvious debt to Kenneth Grahame, which he freely acknowledges by naming the rabbit son Kenneth and his dragon friend Grahame, mentioning The Wind in the Willows in the first chapter and ending the book with Kenny and Grahame about to read The Reluctant Dragon together, described by Kenny as, "...some fairy tale by a British guy."

I confess that one of the reasons I am so charmed by this slim tome lies within the character of Kenny, a prolific reader who struggles with fitting into the world around him. Kenny reminds me of my son, who doesn't yet struggle with the world but may, someday. I was so pleased to find this fantasy with a hero so like my son, not-so-well-read adults who are depicted not as know-nothings but, rather, as characters of wisdom and the kind of intelligence one doesn't learn in books, and a dandy drake named Grahame.  Grahame may have been my favorite character. I want him to come live in my backyard.

09 June 2010

Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson and the Olympians  by Rick Riordan

Derivative? Sure. 

Fun? Absolutely. 

Educational? You betcha. 

Sure, it's similar to Harry Potter. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Yolen's Wizard's Hall is a version of Harry Potter. Written before Harry Potter. Hmmm. 

If Riordan is derivative of anyone, and beholden to anyone, it's Homer and the lexicon of Greek mythology. Just as Rowling is beholden. And Pratchett. And the writers of the Bible (in the original Greek version of the bible, hell is called "Tartarus" ... hmmm). And, and, and. 

However derivative it all is, Riordan has done a bang-up job of re-imagining a mythological world married to our modern world in a way that makes me smile quietly in appreciation. Olympus is over New York and Hades under L.A.? Brilliant. Dyslexia is a demi-god affliction because they are half-wired to read ancient Greek? Clever. Satyrs pissed off about the sullying of the environment by humans? Nice. 

Yes, sometimes Riordan's prose is a tad clunky but it didn't bother me one bit. This is a first-person narrative by a 12 year old. A dyslexic 12 year old. With ADHD. And, for all of the obvious shortcomings of prose aimed at pre-teens being consumed by adults, the effect is often lovely. Take, for example, this gem of a description of Percy's mother, "My mother can make me feel good just by walking into the room. Her eyes sparkle and change color in the light. Her smile is as warm as a quilt. She's got a few gray streaks mixed in with her long brown hair, but I never think of her as old. When she looks at me, it's like she's seeing all the good things about me, none of the bad." 

And who wouldn't like the idea of like Ares on a Harley or Charon wearing Italian Suits? Or Hades causing all the California earthquakes? Or the fight between Zeus and Poseidon, gods of sky and sea, causing all the weird weather we have? 

That's what is fun about Rowling, too. Imagining an otherworld folded into the one I live in every day. 

In the way-back-then-olden days, mythology existed solely to explain the things that couldn't be explained. In our uber-rational modernity, a world saturated by three main religions and the overwhelming logic of science, mythology still exists but now it seems to function solely to reawaken magic and wonder in a world almost entirely divorced from awe. 

Ergo, kudos to Riordan, and Rowling, and Pratchett, and Pullman, and Susan Cooper, and Wynne-Jones, and Juster, and Julie Andrews, and, and, and... Kudos to all of them for writing books that reconnect us with wonder. 


The Sea of Monsters is a read-like-the-wind-to-find-out-what-happens sequel.  As readable and charming as the first, despite the fact that there were not as many opportunities to cleverly overlay  mythology onto modern America (though I particularly liked that the Sea of Monsters was the Bermuda Triangle.)  And, as there were in the first book, there were some lovely laugh-out-loud moments (as when Percy confuses "hummus" with "hubris") and a predictable plot which, still, despite its predictability, entertains beautifully.

The Titan's Curse is a fine continuation of the very readable series; Riordan makes me want to learn my mythology; I wonder how many jokes I'm missing like this one; 

"Zeus's girl, yes?" asked Apollo. "Makes you my half-sister. Used to be a tree, didn't you? Glad you're back. I hate it when pretty girls turn into trees. Man, I remember one time - " 

I giggled. But only because I know about how Daphne turned into a laurel tree to escape Apollo's clutches. And I only know that because my son gave me a lecture at the museum a couple of months ago. 

He's really going to get a kick out of these someday.

The Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy and company set out on another adventure to find Daedalus, the inventor.  This one seemed less tightly drawn than the first three.   But still a page-turner with some engaging lessons, as when Pan communicates this little lovely;  "But my name, Pan ... originally it meant rustic.  Did you know that?  But over the years it has come to mean all.  The spirit of the wild must pass to all of you now.  You must tell each one you meet: if you would find Pan, take up Pan's spirit.  Remake the wild, a little at a time, each in your own corner of the world.  You cannot wait for anyone else, even a god, to do that for you."

The Last Olympian is a rip-roaring, high-octane final battle.  Riordan leaves it open for a sequel;  one can only hope.

I am looking very forward to reading these again.

07 June 2010

Book Review: The House on Mango Street

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros

Cisneros has, by her description, written a "series of stories that would make sense if read alone, or that could be read all together to tell one big story, each story contributing to the whole - like beads in a necklace."

It's like a pointillist portrait taken to some painterly extreme; the dots are themselves made up of dots of spare yet powerful prose, dripping with imagery and despondency despite its nebulousness.  Each chapter is a dot made of dots, barely formed yet when you let your eyes relax, in that way that can make the moving blades of a ceiling fan disappear, the dots coalesce into a vague shape.  And so does the story.

But the shape it takes has the consistency of an ever-changing amoeba, almost making the prose itself the shape; the spare song of despair and hope, sidling up to each other like the twins they are, form each dot within a dot within a dot until the whole picture matters not at all.

"Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep. When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. Four who reach and do not forget to reach."

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare - G.K. Chesterton

The subtitle "A Nightmare" is instructive. This is a surreal tromp through the world of early 20th century anarchy. The entire time I was reading, I wished I knew more about the anarchy of that era but I ended up, for better or worse, substituting our 21st century notions of terrorism for Chesterton's concept on anarchy and, with that subtext, I found a hook upon which to hang my hat.

I've never read Chesterton before and found his style marvelously funny. But was I supposed to find it so? Certainly the humor added to the surreal nature of the book, which Adam Gopnik describes as, "...a Surrealist atmosphere, in the sense that the awful and the extraordinary don't intrude on the normal but rise from the normal - are the normal in another dimension ... [Chesteron] recaptures a childhood sense of what it feels like to be frightened by a nothing that is still a something, and by a sense that ordinary things hold intimations of another world, that the crack in the teacup opens a lane to the land of the dead so easily that the dead are already in the living room, pouring out of the broken porcelain." 

Chesterton views anarchy as a threat to society but also as an oxymoron, "...law and organization which is so essential to anarchy" being one of his many jabs at the idea.

Chesterton's hero, or anti-hero, depending on one's perspective, is Gabriel Syme, a poet who, "being surrounded by every conceivable revolt from infancy...had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left - sanity."

Syme meets a police officer who fills him with notions that Syme had always held but could never state succinctly; "We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people's." This officer takes Syme into a pitch black room where he is inducted into the special police force against anarchy by a disembodied voice and given a small blue card when he leaves to identify him as the law fighting lawlessness.

And so the romp begins.

Sketching out the plot would be a useless affair. Chesterton himself might have created the most useful synopsis in the description of an episode in the chapter entitled, "The Criminals Chase the Police."

"The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows ... Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them.  Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a Negro ... This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned white and black by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people ... Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforseen, and always forgotten."

Another brilliant description of the concept of "things are never as they seem;"
"Walking up the road at night, I have seen a lamp and a lighted window and a cloud make together a most complete and unmistakable face. If anyone in heaven has that face I shall know him again. Yet when I walked a little farther I found that there was no face, that the window was ten yards away, the lamp ten hundred yards, the cloud beyond the world ... [this] has made me, somehow, doubt whether there are any faces. I don't know whether your face, Bull, is a face or a combination in perspective. Perhaps one black disc of your beastly glasses is quite close and another fifty miles away."

And, in fact, it is not the plot that makes the book worth reading (though it is entertaining), but the ideas Chesterton throws out almost casually, as when an anarchist says, "The knife was merely the expression of the old personal quarrel with a personal tyrant. Dynamite is not only our best tool, but our best method. It is as perfect a symbol of us as is incense of the prayers of the Christians. It expands; it only destroys because it broadens; even so, thought only destroys because it broadens. A man's brain is a bomb ... a man's brain must expand ...'"

"Through all his ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy."

"Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength in levity."

Chesterton caps what Kingsley Amis refers to as "not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but something of all three" with an unbelievable ending which makes more surreal sense, if there is such a thing, when one, again, remembers the subtitle, "A Nightmare." And in this ending explosion of fantasy and conflicting philosophies, Chesterton gives his reader the following,

"'Listen to me,' cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. 'Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front -'"

And that, to me, is the main point of the book, if such a book can be said to have a main point. We see what we see but nothing is real. So if that's the case, what is the point of anarchy? Or government? Or religion? Or philosophy? All are ways of organizing oneself in order to make sense of the world. Even anarchy is organized around the idea that there is no order.

And, somehow, I think Chesterton, an avowed Catholic spiritualist, would be crestfallen to discover that his book has allowed me to find worth in both anarchy AND Christianity. That was probably not his intent. At all.