Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)

Jess Aarons is determined to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. He practices all summer, getting up early to go running before breakfast every day. Then on the first day of school he's beaten anyway - by a new girl named Leslie Burke. Despite being outshone by this tomboyish girl, the two become friends and create a magical kingdom in the woods that they call Terabithia.

Bridge to Terabithia was published when I was four, and it reminded me a whole lot of my childhood somehow. Partly I think it's because Paterson captures the imaginations of young people so well, but it also has a distinct 70s feel to me. But I don't think it feels dated, just a bit old-timey. (Jess does have to milk a cow twice a day, after all.)

I loved how Jess and Leslie created a secret magical place, one that probably looked ordinary to everyone else. They fancied themselves king and queen, even naming their dog Prince Terrien. It's a safe respite from the real world, Jess's family's money troubles and Leslie's ostracism at school.

Paterson doesn't talk down to kids, and there's some pretty tough talk here compared to more recently-written books. There's mention of a kid whose father beats her, and the response was basically "So? Whose father's doesn't beat them?" an attitude you'd be hard pressed to find in any book these days. She even compares drawing to drinking whiskey, which of course would never happen in a children's book now, unless perhaps it was part of a moral tale about alcoholism. But it was a pretty vivid comparison that made a lot of sense.

Jess's parents exhibited some subtle prejudices that perhaps are a little out of date - they disapproved of Jess's "hippie" art teacher, for instance. And Jess couldn't admit his interest in art because when he was younger and proudly told his father he wanted to be an artist, his father grumbled about the teachers at his school, "Bunch of old ladies turning my only son into some kind of a -" The thought wasn't finished, but we can guess. (Way to go, Mr. Aarons. See if your son ever confides in you again.)

Still, despite these minor outdated attitudes I appreciated the timeless themes about facing one's fears, the importance of friendship, and the perennial problem of bullying. Reading books written in different time periods really puts some of our social mores into perspective, while highlighting certain aspects of growing up that apparently never change.

You may notice, with my recent reading of Charlotte's Web and now thisthat I'm trying to catch up with some children's classics that I've missed. This might be all for now, but it's been fun to finally read these old classics.

Edited to add:  I just realized this is on my TBR Pile Challenge list as an alternate. So I'm more ahead on that challenge than I thought!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Notorious Benedict Arnold

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: a true story of adventure, heroism, and treachery by Steve Sheinkin (2010)

This winner of the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction recounts the life and career of Benedict Arnold, revealing many details that most people are probably completely ignorant of. Beginning with his birth and childhood, The Notorious Benedict Arnold tells the story of a young man whose family was hit hard by tragedy, but remains ambitious and goes on to become a military hero. Feeling slighted of the recognition he feels he deserved, he makes the fateful decision that seals his reputation forever.

I am distressingly weak on U.S. history, and all I knew about Benedict Arnold was that he was a traitor. The real story, of course, is much more complicated. Not the betrayal, that was pretty clear, but the fact that Benedict Arnold was a respected military hero previously. It's a shame that we reduce historical figures to such black and white characters. Everyone has to be either all good or all bad, and therefore we end up missing a lot of the story.

It took me a little while to get into the book, but it became pretty exciting in parts, especially near the end. This is exactly the kind of history book that I like reading - the kind with a narrative that makes the people and events seem real. I know they are real, but rattling off names and dates and events without showing you what they would have looked like (and skipping all the interesting personal details) is a recipe for a nap during class. Here, we don't just read that Arnold led troops to Quebec, we hear everything about this harrowing trip that left his men hungry and shoeless, wearing rags and barely able to stand. (This style reminded me a lot of American Uprising, a book about a large slave rebellion which I read a few years ago and which included the same kinds of details to make the events seem more like a story than a textbook.)

Written for young adults, I'd say that unlike many other YA nonfiction books this one is pretty definitely for teens, not children. It's a fairly meaty 300 pages, not including notes, and it's all text. As much as I enjoy the more borderline titles that include a lot of interesting photos, this is definitely a more detailed story. If you're interested in a more accessible book about U.S. history, or just a different story about the American Revolution than we usually hear, you might find this of interest.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (1952)

As far as I know, this was my first time reading Charlotte's Web. It's entirely possible I read it as a child eons ago and just forgot. But it seems like the sort of story I would have remembered so I think somehow I actually did manage to miss it.

For anyone else who also passed this one by, it's about a little girl named Fern who saves a runt pig and names him Wilbur. Wilbur befriends a spider named Charlotte who lives above his pen, and when they learn that Wilbur is to be slaughtered in the fall, Charlotte devises a plan to save him.

I've always been a sucker for an animal story, and I found Wilbur to be quite a charming pig (though I must admit I've never met a pig I didn't like.) His unlikely friendship with a spider was actually rather touching and I found Charlotte rather appealing for an arachnid. I've got to respect someone so clever, even if she has far too many legs for my comfort. There was a supporting cast of sheep and a rat named Templeton, all of whom were rather mean or selfish, I suppose to highlight how kind Wilbur and Charlotte were to each other.

This edition was illustrated by Garth Williams, whose style was instantly recognizable from my many readings of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I've always liked the way his drawings are simple without being cartoonish or cutesy, and they are very integral to my memories of the Wilder books. I was happy to recognize him here.

I'm kind of interested in how childhood is treated by different generations, and couldn't help but take note of a passage that described a swing hung from a hayloft that was apparently both exhilarating and terrifying:

"Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman's swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will."

Are there still parents who would let their kid swing on a swing they thought was dangerous? Or would Zuckerman haven taken it down from fear that a kid would get hurt and he'd be sued? Or was this not even representative of parenting at the time it was written? I realize I'm putting way too much thought into something minor, but this is what happens when I read children's books as an adult.

Although I didn't find it sad like I was probably supposed to, Charlotte's Web was nevertheless an endearing little story and I'm glad I finally took a little time to read it. Better late than never!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Train Go Sorry

Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen (1994)

Leah Hager Cohen grew up on the campus of the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York, where her father was superintendent. Part memoir, part journalistic look at deaf education and culture, Cohen's book takes us inside a world that hearing people don't usually get to experience.

Deafness is uniquely isolating, and we see this through a couple of Lexington students that Cohen follows. Sofia and James both have lives at school that are completely separate and different from their family lives. School is where their community is, and where they can be themselves and speak their own language. Both of these students had very interesting lives that I enjoyed reading about, but Sofia's experience as a Russian immigrant really emphasized some of the struggles of deaf people. Imagine how difficult it must be to move to a new country and have to learn a new language. Now imagine you have to learn two new languages. Sofia did - English and American Sign Language (ASL), which has its own grammar and isn't just a signed version of English. The hurdles that these students had to overcome every day in their lives were difficult, and yet they remained undaunted.

Cohen examined controversial issues in deaf culture and education, such as cochlear implants, and mainstreaming in schools. Of particular relevance to Lexington was what language or languages should be included in the curriculum. Traditionally, ASL wasn't even taught and students were forced to learn only English and required to take speech classes. Later ASL was more welcomed, but students still had to learn English and many students protested. I felt sympathetic to both sides of this issue because while I can understand not wanting to be forced to learn a language that isn't yours, it's really, really, really hard to navigate the world if your only language is ASL. The deaf population has unemployment rates much higher than the general population because of these communication barriers. It's a really complex issue.

Train Go Sorry has been on my radar for years, probably since it first came out and a couple of people in my family recommended it. I have a nephew who is deaf, so I knew a tiny bit about some of issues and about deaf education, but not very much. There were things that never even occurred to me, like how much of what we learn is from overhearing conversations and deaf people consequently miss a lot of information that way. It's really fascinating.

I also still have residual interest in this sort of thing from reading Far From the Tree, but what really spurred me to pick this book up is that Leah Hager Cohen will be coming to the library soon. I picked Train Go Sorry for a book group to drum up more interest for her visit, and I'm glad that I did. If you're at all interested in disabilities, other cultures, or just people who are somehow different from you (assuming you're not deaf), I would recommend trying this book.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Panic by Lauren Oliver (2014), narrated by Sarah Drew

In the small town of Carp, high school seniors get themselves through the long, boring summer with a game called Panic. Players must compete in a number of challenges, some of which are dangerous and all of which are terrifying. The stakes are high, but the reward for winning is enough money to change your life.

This summer, we experience Panic through two players, Heather and Dodge. Heather never expected to join, but the promise of a huge pot of money was too much to resist. It would get her - and her little sister- out of the house they share with their irresponsible, train wreck of a mother and into a better life. Dodge is playing for revenge. His sister was permanently injured in Panic a previous summer, and this year Dodge is up against someone who he holds responsible and he is determined to win by any means necessary.

The premise of Panic is intriguing. I like the idea of it, the dares, the way they played off the kids' fears, and how nobody knew who the judges were or what the next challenge would be until the time came. It was pretty intense. During the entire book I thought there is no way in hell I would have done these things, as a teenager or now. Run blindfold across the highway with only the sound of the traffic to guide you? No thanks.

But the challenges were inconsistent. Some were just creepy and would make your skin crawl, but weren't dangerous. Others were potentially deadly. And not all kids did the exact same ones, so you'd think they would protest this unfair disparity but they didn't.

I found it really strange that Heather was totally ok with performing death-defying dares that, quite frankly, were stupid and risky, but was a super goody two-shoes about things like drinking and sex. In fact, early in the book she said she didn't understand the big deal about making out. This makes her sound like she is 12 rather than 18. This is a bit of a tangent, but I'm getting so tired of young adult books propagating the stereotype that only boys are interested in sex, and for girls it's just currency to give or withhold and they aren't actually interested for pleasure's sake. It's maddening.

I was also a little frustrated with certain aspects of the relationships between characters. Some of the tension is based on misunderstandings caused by jumping to conclusions or just not listening. For instance:

Character 1: I need to talk to you
Character 2: No
Character 1: How about now? It's really important
Character 2: No
Character 1 eventually forcibly tells the thing
Character 2: How could you not tell me that????? I hate you!!!

Seriously, Lauren Oliver, you can do better than that.

A few strange interactions didn't ring true to me. For instance, one of the characters gets a text from his mother that just tells him to get to the hospital immediately, so he totally freaks, tries to call her back, she doesn't answer, and he rushes to the hospital to find that it's actually good news and they TOTALLY COULD HAVE MET SOMEWHERE ELSE. And the mother didn't apologize for scaring the kid half to death. It felt so contrived.

The narrator was good enough in general, but I found some of her voices shrill and grating.

Panic wasn't bad, but Oliver's other books are a lot better. If you are really intrigued by the whole idea of the game of panic, it's a decent book but I'd pass on the audio and read the print if I were you.

Friday, May 16, 2014

When God Was a Rabbit

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)

Beginning in 1968, Elly tells the story of her family as she grows up in England. She is especially close to her brother Joe, and admires her Aunt Nancy, who is somewhat of a film star. Also acquired during her childhood are a rabbit she names god (lower case) and a good friend, Jenny Penny. The story follows these important relationships into adulthood in this quirky coming-of-age novel.

I first heard of this book from the podcast The Readers, and it's a title the hosts mention again and again so I'm glad I finally got around to reading it as part of the TBR Pile Challenge. It's the sort of book where the summary doesn't at all convey how appealing it is. Unless you just love British coming-of-age novels (which, I guess I kind of do) it's hard to tell from the description what is so appealing.

Part of what makes this novel unique are its surreal moments. In the prologue Elly meets Jenny Penny, who pulls a coin from her forearm. Not from the sleeve or out of thin air, but wrenching it from her skin, blood and all. Similarly, Elly's rabbit sometimes talks out loud to her. A family friend named Arthur says he knows exactly when and how he will die, and it's the sort of book where you know he could either be proven true, or not, because it's nothing if not unpredictable. The unexpected moments, coincidences, and predictions all combine to make it just a little bit magical.

Elly's childhood is rounded out with her brother's best friend/boyfriend Charlie, and her close friend Jenny Penny, who ends up moving away only to reconnect with Elly later under unexpected circumstances. Elly's family opens a bed and breakfast, apparently because her parents want to expand their circle of friends, and this is where they meet Arthur and an older lady named Ginger who becomes essentially extensions of the family. Her family collects people the way others collect pets, and Elly is certainly influenced by the diversity of people she comes to know.

I had a lot of fun experiencing Elly's childhood and seeing how her experiences carried over into her adult life. The humor is fairly dark in parts, but I think it's ultimately a charming, enjoyable read that strikes just the right balance between being literary and appealing to the general reader.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Winger by Andrew Smith (2013)

Ryan Dean West is the youngest guy in the junior class at the ritzy Pine Mountain boarding school. Even worse, his behavior problems have stuck him in Opportunity Hall where his new roommate is the largest and jerkiest guy on Ryan Dean's rugby team. Ryan Dean is pretty convinced he won't survive the semester. Of even more urgent concern are his unrequited feelings for his good friend Annie. A couple of years older and frustratingly out of reach, she stubbornly reminds Ryan Dean that he's like a little brother to her. Despite all of these problems, Ryan Dean has some good friends he can rely on, which is good because he's going to need them.

There is a big spoilery bit that I can't tell you but which I feel is sort of the most important part of the book and casts everything else in a slightly different light. Dancing around it makes the whole book sound light and fluffy, but don't dismiss it as such. It will totally punch you in the feelings.

There are some things I can tell you. I can definitely tell you about Ryan Dean (and Dean isn't a middle name, it's part of his first name, so he's always Ryan Dean.) His voice is earnest and self-deprecating and funny, and you can tell he's a good guy at heart. He keeps making poor decisions though, and he knows it, but he is powerless in the face of girls he thinks are hot. Somehow he makes it easy to sympathize with him even though he is doing stupid, selfish things. His story is told not just through words, but also through comics, pie charts, and graphs, which all makes him even more dorky and likeable.

He also has a great group of friends. Seanie is the guy most likely to post compromising pictures of you on the internet. JP is a good friend until he and Ryan Dean have a falling out over a girl (isn't that always the way?). Joey lives in O-Hall along with Ryan Dean and his proximity and loyalty contributes to him becoming a very close friend. He sticks up for Ryan Dean with the bullies - and Joey is gay so he is used to bullies - and also tries to steer him in the right direction when he starts making really stupid mistakes regarding Annie. There are a lot of friends and acquaintances here, and they all seem realistically different from each other, in stark contrast to the last book I read where the supporting cast were pretty much interchangeable.

The way Ryan Dean's story is told is just stream-of-consciousness enough to capture what it's like to be inside his head. For instance, he'll mention how comfortable he feels around Joey even though he's gay and then will realize how he sounds just by having articulated that, and then feels guilty about his whole internal conversation because Joey is a great guy. For better or worse, that is just how people think, and it's captured quite well here. Ryan Dean is also convinced that Mrs. Singer, who oversees the currently-empty girls' floor of O-Hall, is putting spells on him. After she threatens to suck his soul out through his eye sockets, Ryan Dean admits, "Well, to be absolutely honest, she actually just said, 'Oh, hello. It's you again,' but I wasn't about to stand there and listen to her demonic incantations." God, I love this kid.

The struggles our hero faces are much like what you'd expect from a teenager, especially one who is younger than his peers at school, but braver than he thinks. This kid doesn't shy away from trouble. He's one of the better teen characters out there, and Winger stands out even in the saturated market of young adult boarding school novels. I'm starting to think you just can't go wrong with Andrew Smith.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday Knitting

Before we get to the knitting, you may have noticed that my blog was down for two days during the week. Super annoying. This has now been fixed permanently and it should be smooth sailing from here on in. Yay!

Also this week, I finished a pair of socks.

I began them, I think, during the 14th month of winter when I was desperately craving something green and alive-looking. While reorganizing my yarn stash I had come across a couple of skeins of Lorna's Laces Shepherd Sock that I totally forgot I had. That's the kind of surprise I like.

The pattern is from Sensational Knitted Socks, and is called Traveling Rib Eyelet. I never gave it a second look before, but this time I was looking particularly for something a bit open and lacy but not too complicated. I decided to just try it out for a pattern repeat and see what I thought, and I ended up liking it more than I expected to. Eventually I was able to go at a pretty steady pace without having to look at the pattern much, which is nice while knitting on the bus.

Until now, I haven't even touched the colorwork sections of Sensational Knitted Socks, though I've looked through the patterns many times. I've had problems in the past finding solid color sock yarns, especially in enough colors that there's two I like that go together well. But recently I decided to spring for some blocking mats from KnitPicks and added a few skeins of sock yarn to my order especially for colorwork socks. I'm looking forward to finally trying those patterns!

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner (2010)

Cass's best friend Julia was working on a top-secret project for months. Then she died suddenly, and her friends discover the project she left behind - a musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. Cass isn't really one of the drama people, so she is on the sidelines as the musical begins to come to life. When her arch-nemesis Heather is cast in the leading role, Cass decides to get out of Dodge. She and Julie had planned a cross-country trip together to California and Cass decides to do it alone on her bike, with only Julia's ashes as company.

The story moves back and forth between "then" and "now." The "then" parts are immediately after Julia died and recount how Cass came to decide to bike to California, and then follows her along on the trip. The "now" sections are after the trip, starting sometime during the summer. I've become rather weary of this construction, but here it's especially weird because the two different time periods are so close together. It was almost confusing in parts.

For some reason, there is nothing like the production of a musical to give a young adult book a spark of life. This is no Will Grayson, Will Grayson but it still has that fun high school musical excitement. Julia's show, though unfinished and a little rough around the edges, is wacky and unusual and as required with any high school project, there's as much drama behind the scenes as in the show itself.

I think the best part about the book is the message. People in this book are mean to each other, they do and say things that hurt. As is the case in real life, they aren't doing it just to enjoy being mean; it's because they are hurting too, and don't know how to handle it. This book is ultimately about forgiveness and second chances, and that's a message I can get behind.

Most of the characters are not very well-developed, which is fairly typical when there's a whole group of friends in a relatively short book. Jon's one defining characteristic is being gay, and Amy and Lissa were pretty interchangeable. But it wasn't about them, it was about Cass and Julia and Heather, and to a lesser extent, Oliver, and they all were developed decently enough to garner my sympathy.

This was a good enough story, but despite it's positive points it didn't grip me. Somehow it lacked tension, and I don't know if it's because of the way the story was constructed or because all of Heather's meanness was so far in the past it felt almost irrelevant, or for some other reason. Still, I liked Cass's determination and generous nature and the way the characters were able to look past each other's faults and see the good parts, plus Horner's writing style is clean and simple, and her observations pretty spot on. She seems like someone who really remembers what it's like to be a teenager.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thunderstruck and Other Stories

Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken (2014)

Elizabeth McCracken's long-awaited (at least by me) new book is a collection of nine short stories, culminating in the title story "Thunderstruck." The longest story in the collection, it is possibly also the most heartbreaking, which is saying a lot for this book. A family reacts to their daughter's troubled, wild behavior by packing up the entire family and going to France. Convinced that she's doing so much better and their troubles are over, at least for now, they are completely blindsided by tragedy.

"Property" surprised me when I began reading it and realized it wasn't the first time. I poked around and found that it was included in The Best American Short Stories 2011, and for good reason. A man named Stony plans to bring his German wife to Maine and they rent a house. But before they can leave Europe she dies suddenly and he arrives at the rental, eventually, alone. He dislikes the house intensely, boxing up its contents and storing them in favor of his own things. The tension, and contention, between Stony and the family who own the house is discomfiting.

In perhaps the most unusual and surprising story, "Some Terpsichore," a young woman becomes a singer to accompany a man who plays the saw. They form an act and also a relationship. Eventually, she is forced to face the truth about the man she fell in love with, and also about her singing. She still has the saw.

"Juliet" takes place in a public library, clearly recognizable as a library where I used to work (McCracken worked there as well but, alas, not at the same time as me.) A librarian recounts a violent crime committed by one library regular upon another (though not at the library), and expertly captures the way we all see only certain aspects of people's lives, but not others. It's a strange kind of voyeurism that we librarians practice.

I had a moment of sadness when I finished reading and realized that again, already, I have no more McCracken to read because I've read all her stuff. I'm actually tempted to go back and start from the beginning. Sometimes I find short stories tough to read, especially the longer ones, but I just enjoy her style so much that I don't care what it is. If she wrote poetry I'd read it, or a play, or  a western.

It's difficult to pinpoint what it is that grabs me in such a particular way. The stories are moving and surprising and poignant, the characters just quirky enough to be real, but the moments that give me the most satisfaction are when I come across descriptions like "It looked as though someone had taken a potting shed and turned it inside out" and "...a sunroom beyond seemed an asylum for insane and injured furniture." Or the observation, "People take their hands with them, no matter where they go." The way she writes just makes me see things differently and it can be jarring in the best possible way.

Each story contains so much that it's sort of shocking when you think about it. The night I read the first story in the collection, "Something Amazing," I put the book down and marveled at how much happened in those 16 pages. I felt like I knew these people, everything about their lives, what has already happened and what hasn't even happened yet, and how does that all get crammed into 16 pages and still have room for such clever, vivid language? It's like her stories are bigger on the inside. They are the TARDISes of stories.

I can't really say enough to recommend this collection. Elizabeth McCracken has long been one of my favorite authors and she continues to prove her skill here. Even if you think you don't like short stories, I suggest you give these ones a shot. They are excellent.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a memoir of food and longing by Anya Von Bremzen (2013)

Born in the Soviet Union in 1963, Anya Von Bremzen formed the same kind of fond childhood food memories as we all do, but hers are tainted by the propaganda of communism. After emigrating to the US at the age of ten, she pursued a career in music before falling into food writing. Here she unpacks her food memories - her "poisoned madeleines" as she calls them - and uses them to tell the story of her childhood, her family, and life in the Soviet Union.

Based on the prologue, I thought each of the following chapters would be framed by a story in which Anya and her mother cooked a Soviet dish representative of that decade, but it wasn't so neat and tidy. For instance, the chapter on the 1930s mentions a get-together for 1930s food but it's only about a page and recounts their conversation, not the food. More room than I expected was devoted to the political and historical context. From Tsar Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin, the political climate was present in every chapter as the author traces the lives of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.

It was ambitious, and she pulled it off quite expertly. Not counting the recipes in the back, the entire book was about 300 pages and she managed to fit in a great deal of family history, what felt like the entire history of 20th century Russia, and still a lot of food talk. I'm not sure how it was all crammed in there, but it still managed to be pretty well put-together.  Reading it was a little tough in parts, since I tend to struggle with history, but she always pulled the story back to more familiar and easy-to-read ground.

I know the Soviet Union isn't the first place we think of when we think about cuisine, but I've always had a soft spot for Russia (and I do enjoy a good bowl of borscht). Something about the character of Soviet food really does seem perfect for such an eclectic mix of comedy, tragedy, and memory.