Saturday, September 26, 2009

117 (2009 #42). Call It Courage

by Armstrong Sperry,
read by Lou Diamond Phillips

I recently purchased (for my library) and listened to this audio version of the 1941 Newbery winner. Actor Phillips provides a dramatic, exciting reading that is enhanced with original music composed by Richard DeRosa. Especially effective were the drumbeats in the climax of the book. The combination brings this classic adventure/survival/coming-of-age tale to life.

Mofatu, whose name means “stout heart,” is 15 years old and the son of the chief of Hikueru, a real island in the South Pacific. His mother drowned when Mofatu was three (he survived the hurricane that capsized their canoe), and since then he has been afraid of the ocean. Taunted by his peers and feeling he is an embarrassment to his father, he decides to leave by canoe to test his courage, accompanied only by his dog and (sometimes) a pet albatross. He survives a huge storm on the water, landing on an uninhabited island that’s apparently used occasionally for ritual cannibalism, ultimately escaping from the “eaters of men” when they arrive on the island, and returning to his home. He kills a shark, an octopus, and a wild pig. More interesting, to me at least, were the ways he fashioned tools and utensils, a canoe, and tapa cloth, the latter from the inner bark of a mulberry tree.

Sperry’s observations from his trips in 1920-21 and 1924-25 to French Polynesia are evident in Call It Courage. For example:
While his breakfast roasted in the coals, the boy cleared the brush away from the base of the great tamanu. There was no wood better for canoe building than this. It was tough, durable, yet buoyant in the water. Mafatu could fell his tree by fire, and burn it out, too. Later he would grind an adze out of basalt for the finished work. The adze would take a long time, but he had made them often in Hikueru and he knew just how to go about it. The boy was beginning to realize that the hours he had spent fashioning utensils were to stand him now in good stead. Nets and knives and sharkline, implements and shell fishhooks—he knew how to make them all. How he hated those tasks in Hikueru! He was quick and clever with his hands, and now he was grateful for the skill which was his.

I liked this book and I think it would appeal to both boys and girls. (I’ve now completed Island of the Blue Dolphins - review to be posted later – and I much prefer Call It Courage). It may need to be read aloud to younger children (or they can listen to this audiobook), as the reading level measures out to 5th-8th grade. Sperry's granddaughter has put together an excellent website with a lot of resources that could be used in an author, book, and/or Polynesia study.

It’s relatively short (only 95 pages in my university’s 1941 hardbound reprint) with a lot of exciting action, yet there’s much interesting information about South Sea island life of a century ago, plus a valuable message about personal courage. An autobiographical note (written in third person) published in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Horn Book, 1955) concludes (page 198), “it is in this book that Armstrong Sperry has put not only what he saw and felt on the islands of the South Seas, but something of his own philosophy of living as well.” I would have to agree.

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

116 (2009 #41). Shattered Dreams

by Irene Spencer

Subtitled "My Life as a Polygamist's Wife," this memoir is by and about the second of the ten wives of Verlan LeBaron, brother of the infamous polygamist Ervil LeBaron and niece of yet another polygamist leader, Rulon C. Allred. I read this book shortly after listening to The 19th Wife, partly because there was a chance I might be getting Spencer's other memoir, Cult Insanity, which is about her brother-in-law Ervil, to review.

Irene Spencer grew up in a fourth-generation polygamist family - her mother was the second of four wives and Irene was the 13th of 31 children. Her mother escaped polygamy and Irene fell in love with and wanted to marry a "nonbeliever." Pressure from other family members and her own religious beliefs led to her marrying her half-sister's husband Verlan when she was 16 years old.

Everything goes downhill from this marriage, performed secretly on the Mormon temple grounds in Salt Lake City, as today's mainstream Mormons don't practice polygamy. Her half-sister was present, as the previous wives have to agree to the husband's later marriage and one of them is expected to participate in the ceremony! It was July 1953, and later that month, a polygamous compound in Arizona was raided, so Verlan moved his two wives to the LeBaron family settlement in Mexico.

Irene spends most of the next 28 years in abject poverty, moving 25 times mostly in rural Mexico and even Nicaragua, and giving birth to 13 children in 19 years. Meanwhile, her husband goes on to marry eight more women (with Irene "giving" four of them in marriage) and father 58 children in all before his death in an auto wreck in 1981 at age 51 (which both Irene and Verlan apparently foresaw in dreams).

Irene is surprisingly equanimous about the poverty and many of the other hardships she endures, justifying them as part of the suffering she must undergo to be a "goddess" in the afterlife. She is extremely jealous of the time Verlan spends with any of his other wives, however, and obviously sexually frustrated. I had a hard time understanding how she could continue to love a man who apparently thought so little of her. I suspect she'd be married to him to this day if it hadn't been for his early death. The book could have done with some heavy editing to shorten its nearly 400 pages.

Nevertheless, this book provided some insight into how and why women get stuck in these kinds of relationships. Indeed, on her own website, Irene admits that three of her children (I'm hoping all sons and no daughters) are in polygamous relationships today. She and her children lived a life so isolated that one can see why some of the children got caught up in this lifestyle.

Interestingly, one of Irene's "sister-wives," Susan Ray Schmidt, has also written a memoir, called His Favorite Wife (which Irene agrees she was). More about Susan here, more about Irene here, and more about both of them here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

115 (2009 #40). Criss Cross

by Lynne Rae Perkins,
read by Danielle Ferland

I LOVED this 2006 Newbery winner! Author Lynne Rae Perkins is only a year older than I am, and this book mirrors her (and my) adolescence. Described in a discussion guide as “a companion novel to the award-winning All Alone in the Universe, Debbie is fourteen...;” she, the main character, is also described as being 13 and the year being 1969 in All Alone, so Criss Cross must be set in 1970. ”Words of Love,” the Mamas and the Papas song that Hector is listening to on pages 105-106 of the hardbound edition, came out in November 1966, and would still be getting airplay in 1970. However, much of what happens in the book has that timeless quality that makes it possible for anyone to relate to it.

The title comes from a fictional music and comedy radio show Debbie and her friends Lenny, Hector, Patty, and Phil listen to on Saturdays. It’s also reflective of the criss-crossing (but not always intersecting) activities and relationships of the characters in the book. I loved the illustration near the title page of “the spectrum of connectedness,” showing dots for “people move back and forth in this area like molecules in steam,” the area being that between 0% and 100% connectedness, both of which say “no one is here—no one.”

The book is very humorous, in a subtle way. Chapter 8, called “Easy Basin Wrench, or Debbie Has a Mechanical Moment, Too,” is one of my favorites, with Debbie reading aloud to her father the instructions for a basin wrench, which were obviously not originally written in English. There’s a funny scene in chapter 16 where Debbie plays one of those games with the letters in the names of herself and the jock she has a crush on, trying to see what permutations bring up the result (married!) she’s looking for. There’s even a clever reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (quoted from at the beginning of the book), with an illustration of Debbie’s crush as a donkey (page 140 in the hardbound edition).

I thought the writing was wonderful, conjuring up images and memories based on the words alone. This book is definitely character-driven rather than plot-driven, and that may make it hard for many of today’s vampire-loving teens to relate to it. Despite interesting male characters, I see this book appealing more to introspective girls, ages 14 and up.

I loved Broadway actress Danielle Ferland’s reading of this book, and I can’t understand why others have disliked it so much. I felt she used great expression in the reading and in coming up with some variations in voices for the characters, often sounding like a sarcastic or bored or self-conscious teen herself. I had no trouble following the haiku (which I thought was wonderful!) in chapter 14, nor the conversation between Debbie and Patty in chapter 10 (where, I note in the print version, the author quits using initials to designate who is speaking partway through the conversation – thereby, in my opinion, emphasizing the universality of such “girl-talk.”). However, the numerous illustrations (black-and-white photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, or a mixture of those media) in the print versions add a LOT to this book, probably making it more accessible to the target audience.

According to a January 24, 2006, report on NPR, Criss Cross was praised by the Newbery Committee chair as "an orderly, innovative, and risk-taking book in which nothing happens and everything happens." In a USA Today article the day before, Perkins said she “was inspired by her own adolescence as a ‘late bloomer’ who needed reassurance that ‘life doesn't always happen like it does in movies and books, but that's OK.’"

[A variation of this review appears on The Newbery Project.]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

114 (2009 #39). Gathering Blue

by Lois Lowry,
read by Katherine Borowitz

Another dystopian novel for ages 10 and up, this one is set in a post-“Ruin” world, where most of the people have regressed to primitive living, and children with physical flaws, like the heroine Kira, are supposed to be left out as babies for “the beasts” to claim. Kira, recently orphaned, is about to lose everything she has—including her life--to fellow villagers. Then the community’s leaders, due to her talent in embroidery, choose her to live in the one building, the Council Edifice (which, from its description, appears to have contained a church) that withstood the Ruin. She is to work on mending and adding to the decorations on the ceremonial robe worn by the "Singer" each year when performing the story of the Ruin at the village “Gathering."

In her new home, Kira meets Thomas, the carver a few years older than herself, working on the Singer’s staff, and Jo, the little girl being trained to replace the aging Singer some day. Like the similarly-aged Jonas in Lowry’s Newbery-winning The Giver, Kira, with the help of a rambunctious “tyke” named Matt, discovers the secrets of her society and makes a choice that will change her life, and perhaps those of the villagers.

This book has some messages about the role of artists in society. Lowry creates an interesting culture where the number of syllables in a person’s name increases as s/he ages. The Ruin Song has some telling words (pages 170-172 in the hardbound edition):
Burn, scourged world,
Furious furnace,
Inferno impure-…

Ravaged all,
Bogo tabal
Timore toron
Totoo now gone…

...“I believe it tells the names of lost places.”
… and if you look carefully, you can identify them.

I listened to the audiobook because a previous user had said there was a problem with one of the cassette tapes (there wasn’t) and I needed to test it. Actress Katherine Borowitz reads the book quietly and calmly, matching the detached tone of the story, showing emotion only when expressing Kira’s thoughts or memories of her mother, or the rough Fen dialect of Matt.

This book is linked to The Giver, but only near the end, and it isn't necessary to have read it before reading Gathering Blue.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

113 (2009 #38). Loving Frank

by Nancy Horan

Loving Frank is probably best described as a biographical novel or fictionalized biography. It’s the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the love of world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. Their affair shocked the still-Victorian nation from 1907 through 1914, as both had children and were married to others (although Mamah and her husband divorced in 1911). They met in 1903 in Oak Park, Illinois (where author Nancy Horan and some of my relatives used to live), when Frank designed a house for Mamah and her then-husband.

Strong-willed and independent, a college graduate and a former librarian, Mamah spent long periods on her own in Europe, translating books on free love by feminist Ellen Key, from German and Swedish to English. She was an intellectual match for Wright, and part of the inspiration for Taliesin, his home and studio in the Wisconsin countryside where his maternal grandparents settled.

This is another work that makes me want to research the characters, settings, and events to learn even more. Nancy Horan has a great website for the book with lots of photographs of Wright’s works, a video walking tour of Oak Park, as well as period newspaper articles about him and Mamah. The interesting cover for the hardbound edition features a stained glass dining room ceiling light from one of the homes Wright designed.

I think this will make a great book for discussion - it's scheduled for November with my local book club.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

112 (2009 #37). The Eyre Affair

by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair, first in author Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next literary detective series, is part science fiction, part mystery, and part alternate history (literary and otherwise), and very funny. The events in the book take place in a 1985 that’s apparently been changed (maybe by Nineteen Eighty-Four?). The Crimean War is still going on. Time travel and dodos for pets are common. People actually *care* about literature and art (as opposed to sports), with rabid Baconians, Raphaelites, and the Surrealists attacked by the Impressionists.

In this story, a criminal named Acheron Hades begins murdering characters in books, ultimately threatening Jane Eyre herself. “Literatec” Thursday Next, aided or thwarted by characters with interesting names (for example, her bosses Braxton Hicks and Victor Analogy, and a bad guy named Jack Schitt), ultimately solves the case. I loved all the literary allusions, although I'm ashamed to admit I've only read a summary of Jane Eyre, so I probably missed a lot there.

Being a Shakespeare fan, I particularly appreciated the Will-Speak machines, coin-operated kiosks available on various street corners with Shakespeare character mannequins reciting the character’s famous speeches. I want a WillSpeak - although I'd probably need more than one - so many favorite Shakespeare characters! It was also fun to read about Richard III being performed a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, with audience participation.

Another important activity in the story is “book jumping,” where characters come out of books (as in Inkheart) and people can go into them. Sometimes this is involuntary, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes an invention like that of Thursday’s Uncle Mycroft, the Prose Portal, can help someone do it. My favorite scene is the one where the bioengineered Bookworms in the Prose Portal eat omitted prepositions and dropped definitive articles, fart apostrophes and ampersands, and belch unnecessary capitalizations (pages 201 and 312 in the hardbound edition) – which affects the {written} speeches of the people around them. So funny! [The proliferation of unnecessary apostrophes of late, particularly on signs, and the misuse of its and it's drives me crazy!]

I enjoyed the book enough to want to read the next in the series, Lost in a Good Book. I picked that one up at a Friends of the Library book sale a while back, but a friend told me you really need to read this series in order. So, I was really glad when one of my online book groups picked this book to discuss! It was our selection for a humorous title.

The best fun is trying to track down all the references. For everything British that we colonists don't understand, go to this page on Fforde’s website for explanations book by book.

I think this is a book you have to read first just to enjoy Fforde's imagination. Just accept things that are written as the way things are and go on with the story. It may need a re-read to thoroughly enjoy the real story behind some of his characters and situations. I had some trouble remembering who was who with so many characters coming in and out of the story quickly. That's where Fforde's previous experience in film is apparent ... the book switched gears very much like a screenplay.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

111 (2009 #36). Unwind

by Neal Shusterman

Unwind is dystopian science fiction, about a future world where unwanted teens can be “unwound,” with their body parts salvaged for use by others. This dystopia is the result of a civil war over abortion, with the compromise being that life is sacred until age 13, but then parents (or the state, in the case of orphans) can choose unwinding for their 13- to 17-year-olds, the reasoning being that the teen doesn’t really “die” since nearly 100% of their body parts are being reused. Once a child turns 18, s/he is safe from unwinding. Connor, a troublemaker, Risa, a ward of the state, and Levi, a “tithe” (a child deliberately conceived by the parents to be unwound as part of their religion) are the three runaways trying to escape unwinding in this riveting story.

The novel makes the reader think about issues such as organ harvesting and donation, euthanasia, and abortion. Some of the scenes in the book are thought-provoking. For example, the idea of cellular memory in organ transplants leading to criminal behavior, and the “Storking Initiative,” which requires that an unwanted newborn be raised by whoever finds it on the doorstep, another result of the ban on abortion that also has unintended consequences. An unwinding is described and it’s truly horrific.

I didn’t expect to like this book, as it’s not my typical genre (I read it for an online discussion). It was much better than I thought it would be. It would generate great discussions in a classroom setting; there’s an excellent study guide on the author’s website. In an interview, Shusterman said the idea for the book “gelled when I read an article about transplant technology. One scientist said that he predicted that within our lifetimes, they will be able to use 100% of an organ donor’s body. That got me thinking — if 100% of you is alive, are you alive or not? I thought this book was a great way to ask that question, and through that question, address all these issues of medical and social ethics.” This is another book I'll be purchasing for my university's collection.

Monday, September 07, 2009

110 (2009 #35). The 19th Wife

by David Ebershoff;
read by Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arhur Morey, and Daniel Passer

This book intertwines the story of Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning, the 19th (or 27th or 52nd, depending on how you count) wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, with a modern-day murder mystery set on a polygamous compound of “Firsts,” Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), in Utah. The historical fiction part of the book is loosely based on Ann Eliza’s 1876 memoir, Wife No. 19 (available online), with a number of liberties taken with the real story. Ann Eliza actually sued Brigham Young for divorce and went around the country speaking about her life in polygamy, contributing indirectly to its eventual demise in the official Mormon church.

I found the parts of the book pertaining to Ann Eliza’s story the most interesting. They are presented in the form of supposed excerpts from her memoir, her father’s autobiography, Latter Day Saints (LDS) church archives, letters by her son and one brother, contemporary newspaper articles and interviews, even her mother’s, another brother’s, and Brigham Young’s diaries, and research by Ann Eliza’s descendent, Kelly Dee, supposedly a student at Brigham Young University working on her master’s thesis. In an endnote, author David Ebershoff makes it clear that “Although I am the author of these, they are fictional representations of what it’s like to spend time in the archives and online researching Ann Eliza Young, Brigham, and early LDS history. Many are inspired by an actual text or a kind of text.” Ann Eliza’s story is so fascinating that I was compelled to do research of my own to find out what was real and what was not in Ebershoff’s fiction.

The mystery centers around Jordan Scott, a 20 year old gay kicked out of the Firsts at age 14 (more because it was common to do so with the excess of boys in polygamous societies, as he hadn’t come out at that point). His mother is the 19th wife of a First, Jordan’s father, and she’s been accused of killing him. Jordan believes she is innocent and sets out to prove it. On his website, Ebershoff relates an incident while doing research for the book that ends up happening to Jordan too.

Ebershoff pulls together the two stories with Kelly, who meets and aids Jordan at one point. This modern-day story is less interesting than Ann Eliza’s tale, yet it provides insight into recent events involving FLDS.

I found it interesting that one of Ann Eliza’s brothers is implied to be the first leader and “Prophet” of the Firsts, and that no one knows what happened to Ann Eliza after her second memoir was published in 1908. The latter point is true and I think she was probably murdered by Firsts for resuming her fight against polygamy.

The unabridged audio version of this book was excellent. It employed four narrators, a young male for Jordan, a young female for Kelly, an older female for Ann Eliza, and an older male for most of the other voices in the book (Ann Eliza’s father, brother, son, Brigham Young, etc.). This made it quite easy to follow the weaving storylines.

An interesting interview with Ebershoff is here.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

109 (2009 #34). The Pact

by Jodi Picoult

The Dallas Morning News says, “Picoult has carved her own niche with her novels – one part romance, one part courtroom thriller, two parts social commentary,” and The Pact certainly fits. There are many similarities between this book and the other two of Picoult's that I've read, My Sister's Keeper and especially Nineteen Minutes. In the latter, the two main teenage characters (Peter and Josie) have also been friends nearly from birth like Chris and Emily, as have their mothers (Lacey and Alex respectively), and the mothers' friendship is negatively affected as is Gus' and Melanie's. Peter, like Chris, is also accused of murder. Jordan McAfee is the defense lawyer in both. And, in both, the book jumps back and forth between present and past.

The “pact” refers to the supposed botched suicide pact that is Chris’ defense when he is charged with murdering Emily. Trouble is, Chris really did shoot the depressed and (unknown to him) pregnant Emily, at her request. The reader learns this early on. The book is really more about the characters: the progression (through flashback) of Chris and Emily’s relationship from childhood friendship to sex, the dissolution of the parents’ friendships after Emily’s death, and Chris’ growing awareness of himself and that Emily was not all that he thought she was.

The weakest character is Emily. Her molestation in a men’s restroom at age nine is downplayed, both by Picoult and by Emily herself, but it’s never very clear why this teenager wanted to kill herself and take her supposed best friend with her. As one gets to know her mother, Melanie, one can see why Emily, her only child, did not confide in her. I really disliked Melanie. Probably what cemented it for me was the way she purposely misdirected the patrons at her library (pages 75-76) - being a librarian, that REALLY offended me.

This book did generate some good discussion in an online group, about whether or not one can be too close to a non-relative, parental and societal expectations of relationships, and the making and breaking of friendships.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

108 (2009 #33). Impossible

by Nancy Werlin

Inspired by the song “Scarborough Fair,” made famous by Simon and Garfunkel in the late 1960s, Impossible is really an imaginative retelling of the Scottish folk ballad “The Elfin Knight” it is based on. A pleasing blend of fantasy, romance, and suspense, the book is about 17-year-old Lucy Scarborough, who is being raised by loving foster parents after her own teenage mother, Miranda, becomes mentally ill and homeless shortly after Lucy’s birth. Miranda still seeks out Lucy, singing a version of the ballad as a warning, but Lucy is only embarrassed by her.

Lucy is raped by her shy first date at the senior prom, who seems to be possessed and immediately afterward wrecks his car and dies. It’s pretty clear to the reader that Padraig Seeley, the enigmatic and ingratiating new social worker in her foster mother’s office, is the evil being behind this. Lucy becomes pregnant and soon afterward rediscovers her mother’s diary and a long-hidden letter of warning from her. It turns out the Scarborough girls have been cursed for generations by the evil Elfin Knight (guess who?), who impregnates them and causes them to go mad if they cannot perform three impossible tasks in the ballad before their daughters are born – and then the daughter undergoes the same curse. Lucy’s resilience, and the love, backing, and creativity of her family and her “true love,” the boy next door, lead to a gripping climax.

While I would have liked to see more development of the solving of the three tasks as well as the reality behind the romance (the loyalty of the boy next door is a little too convenient), I thought this was a wonderful book. The rape, teen pregnancy, and teen marriage are all handled gracefully and provide great topics for discussion, particularly in a mother-daughter book group. The message about trusting in oneself and in the love and support of family and friends to help overcome even “impossible” situations is the theme of the book. I’d recommend it to high school age and up, and I plan to purchase the title for my library’s YA collection.