Tuesday, November 20, 2012

John Green and Why/ How You Should Read

We interrupt our usual review programming to bring you something I am passionate about! Yet again, John Green has spoken what is in my heart, and this time it is about my favorite topic: books! He talks about how books are communication, and that reading is an act of empathy. How it is more important for the reader to get something inspiring out of a book than it is for the author's intent to be fully understood. AND how grammar  is so important!

If anyone asks you why reading is so important, here is a version of what Jon says (the list goes by so fast)! 

By reading critically and understanding language you will:

1) Have a fuller understanding of lives other than your own, which
2) Will help you to be more empathetic, and thereby
3) Help you to avoid getting dumped by that young woman in the first place, although more importantly,
4) Reading critically and attentively will give you the linguistic tools to share your own story with more precision.

And this will help you immensely in any field you enter, be it in finance where you have to give a presentation to the board, or in an argument where you are trying to explain your point of view, or as an author yourself!

Friday, November 16, 2012

REVIEW: An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
by Jim Murphy

I absolutely loved this book. I was shocked that it was for kids! It was so gory and psychologically scary, and utterly compelling and informative. I definitely recommend it for people who love zombie plague stories. Or the 1700s. Or both!

This book tells the story of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. It starts out slow, listing one death, then several in a boarding house. Then, it spreads down the street and to other portions of the neighborhood until the entire city is infected. It chronicles the panic, how people left the city in droves, and abandoned family members. It describes in detail the horrifying symptoms (complete with illustrations), including vomiting black blood and bile. And it tells of the heroic efforts of those who stayed in the city to help, which to me was the most interesting part of the book: the survival efforts, what happens when government breaks down, the unlikely heroes. It concludes with the sociological aftermath, those who wished to forget the plague, those who pointed fingers, those who had to defend their actions. As an afterward, it tells of the discovery of the causes of yellow fever a century later, and a vaccine in the mid 20th century. It ends with a warning that there has been no recent vaccine for yellow fever, and if it reemerges, we would be almost powerless to stop it. Upbeat ending for a children’s book, huh?

And that is exactly why I loved it. I enjoy kids books that don’t pull punches. They tell it like it is. I feel that what kids fear most is the fear of the unknown. The things parents are whispering about, but won’t tell them straight up. The monster in the dark that you can’t see. I feel that adults are this way too. Once you know what something is, once you can name it, once you know how to fight it, it loses some of it’s power.

This book is not only compelling, but it is highly informative. Jim Murphy did extensive research into primary sources, including letters, diaries and personal accounts of those who were there. Because of this, he was able to build a very intimate and highly descriptive narrative without embellishing with fiction. It does what the best nonfiction does: place you there in the dirty, quiet street, watching another cart full of dead bodies creak by. You feel you know the historical figures personally.

I would recommend this book to my adult friends too! Nowhere in this book did I think for a moment that it was “dumbed down” for children. I think it is comparable to John Adams by David McCollough (though a lot shorter) or Devil and the White City by Erik Larson (but with less speculation)!

If you want a quick, informative, highly disturbing glimpse into a moment of real life in the 1700s, this is the book for you!

I recommend this book if you liked:
Devil and the White City by Erik Larson
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
by Laurie R. King

“I became, in other words, more like Holmes than the man himself: brilliant, driven to a point of obsession, careless of myself, mindless of others, but without the passion and the deep-down, inbred love for the good in humanity that was the basis of his entire career. He loved the humanity that could not understand or fully accept him; I, in the midst of the same human race, became a thinking machine.” 

Mary Russell is a stubborn, frustrated, wildly intelligent girl of 15 when she stumbles across an old man sitting in a field watching bees. After fencing wits with him and impressing him with her keen powers of observation, he lets her into his life, first as a curiosity, then as an apprentice. The man, as you may have guessed, is Sherlock Holmes, who retired to Sussex to keep bees (yes, this is canon!) Mary and Holmes' relationship deepens from teacher and student to deep friends as they solve one case after another. Will they be able to maintain their bond when forces from the past threaten to tear them apart?

This review will not be my best, as my reading of this book has been choppy due to reading for school. I will cobble together what I can, and I hope that my impressions are accurate!

While the mysteries in this book are not my favorite, I have often discovered (from watching Castle) that we care less about the mysteries and more about the relationship of the main characters and how it develops over time. That is certainly true in this case. I had a hard time following the various mysteries at times. There were also a few stylistic quirks that irked me a bit. We were treated to not one, but two "and then we had more adventures that I won't tell you about, and now back to the real plot" (a pet peeve of mine). Towards the beginning of the book, the author would often jump ahead to say how this adventure that they had changed Mary's life and later on... and so you thought the adventure was over, but then it would return to a point in the middle of the adventure and continue. We also had a moment where the characters leave the country and do nothing relevant to the plot for a few chapters.

That being said, this Holmes is my Holmes. This is spindly, leaping, cackling, violin-playing, infuriatingly blunt Holmes. From the start, when he sat on the hill, rolled his "R"s condescendingly, and raised an eyebrow, I knew it was him. My Jeremy Brett from the Granada television series (which the author mentioned was her favorite Holmes). This Holmes had his energy, even at an old age, his passion, his incisive mind, and his deep hidden devotion to those close to him. At times, I did worry that his relationship with Russell, as Holmes called her, was getting too sentimental, but certainly by then end, I knew that that is the friendship I would have wanted with Holmes. The mutual respect and fatherly love he had for her by the end of the book was tuned perfectly.

As for Mary Russell, I loved her. She was not perfect. She was stubborn and bull-headed. But she was sharp, and brave, and did not give a shit about how she was perceived. She worked hard and earned every ounce of respect that Holmes gave her. She grew from a girl who was rebellious because she was angry to a formidable, self-possessed woman.

I did feel a little bad for Dr. Watson, or Uncle John, as Mary calls him. He is portrayed as a bit dim (compared to Mary and Holmes), but so full of love. This interpretation is absolutely supported by the original Holmes stories. Rather than having Watson as a true partner to Holmes, King holds up Watson as Holmes' empathy. Yes, Holmes has much of his own, but Holmes is the brain and Watson is the heart, and they need each other in that way. Mary, however, is Holmes' intellectual partner.

There are some truly moving moments in this book: a quiet talk about post traumatic stress and all the feelings it can unleash with a child who has returned from being kidnapped, a trip to Palestine that has special meaning for Russell, who is Jewish, and a night of emotionally intimate conversation between Holmes and Mary towards the end of the book that gave me the "if I was friends with Holmes, this is what I would want" moment. And the chess and beekeeping symbolism, sometimes both at once, was clever and fun!

While the mysteries were not as gripping as I would have hoped, the relationships and moments of humanity and beauty in this book have motivated me to get the next one!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

REVIEW: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

 Ok For Now
By Gary D. Schmidt

"I came over to the table to see how come it was the only lousy thing in the whole lousy room. 
And right away, I knew why. 
Underneath the glass was this book. A huge book. A huge, huge book. It's pages were longer than a good-size baseball bat. I'm not lying. And on the whole page, there was only one picture. Of a bird.
I couldn't take my eyes off it. 
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he were trying to turn but couldn't. His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.
This bird was falling and there wasn't a single thing in the world that cared at all."

This is the story of how you make a bully. Or how you stop one from being made. It is about the boxes we create, and how we should break them down. How if you expect a boy to be a thug, he will be that. If you expect him to do great things, he will.

Doug Swieteck’s dad lost his job, so they had to move to “stupid Marysvale” away from his friends and into a tiny house which he calls The Dump. Doug feels like everyone in town looks at him like he doesn't belong. His father drunkenly rails against his new boss and the unfairness of life, his older brother is off fighting in Vietnam, his middle brother persecutes him, and his mother with the beautiful smile smiles less and less. Doug has secrets that he is trying to hide, and, more and more, he finds himself talking like his older brother, Lucas,  when Lucas is being a jerk. That is until one person trusts him. One person sees him as not just a “skinny thug.” Through this, he is introduced to the pictures in James Audubon’s Birds of America and his life is forever changed.

This book is a companion book to The Wednesday Wars, and I think that, through this book, Gary Schmidt perfected what he was trying to do with the first book. Doug is at a much lower place than Holling, and he has much further to go. He is trapped in his own pain and defensiveness. Then, he meets Lil Spicer, who trusts him with her bike, not naively, but as a test of friendship. One person believes in him. Then two: Mr. Powell, the librarian, who shows him how to draw the birds he is so enchanted by. Then, each person on his grocery delivery route. But then as soon as everything gets good, his brother is suspected of stealing, and Doug is shunned and belittled by neighbors, teachers, and classmates. He starts to do bad in school, and act out. It is amazing how, like Schmidt said with The Wednesday Wars, we behave how everyone expects us to behave. The question is who will exert more influence over Doug: those who think he is a thug who will never amount to anything, or those who see his goodness.

Doug’s relationship with the birds was incredibly powerful. I was surprised. I never liked Audubon’s birds, but it took Doug’s eyes for me to see the beauty and the terror of them. I had to keep looking back at the pictures (which were used as chapter headings) to see if the picture really showed what Doug said, and sure enough, they did. And his interpretation of the picture changed over time. Events in his life shed new light on the pictures and their meaning.

Through his new friendships and his relationship with the pictures, Doug struggles to become more than is expected of him, striving to change himself and his life. He begins to topple the cages that hold him and his family prisoner.

Schmidt writes with beautiful symmetry, rhythm, and symbolism, and we begin to see that those blurry archetypes we see are not the whole picture at all. Nameless characters become named. People realize they are wrong. Doors open, hands are extended. People try. Not everything ends up ok; the final chapter is heart-wrenchingly open ended. But again, Schmidt has written a book that is a must read for any kid who feels trapped by expectation, or any adult who has become set in their views. 

I loved this book especially because Doug's attitude often reminds me of me; muttering about the stupid people in the stupid town. Seeing the worst in people because I am in a bad mood. Spreading my hurt around. Many people think that becoming a bully is something that comes from very specific circumstances, but the seed is inside all of us. I also saw myself in the townsfolk who judged Doug on the actions of his brother. I find myself writing someone off because of something I heard. This book encouraged me to open up more, and find the good in people in every moment, even if I am having a sucky day. 

Damn good book, even better than Wednesday Wars, and one I will buy.

The Arctic Tern, by John Audubon (the image Doug describes above):

REVIEW: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

The Wednesday Wars
By Gary Schmidt

After we closed the books, Mrs. Baker asked me to discuss the character of Shylock.
 "He isn't really a villain," I said, "is he?"
"No," said Ms. Baker, "he isn't."
"He's more like someone who wants..."
"Who wants what, Mr. Hoodhood?"
"Someone who wants to become who he's supposed to be," I said.
Mrs. Baker considered that. "And why couldn't he?" she asked.
"Because they wouldn't let him. They decided he had to be a certain way, and he was trapped. He couldn't be anything except for what he was," I said.
"And that is why they call it a tragedy," said Mrs. Baker.  

The Wednesday Wars is about Holling Hoodhood, the Son Who Is Going To Inherit Hoodhood and Associates Architects Firm. He lives in the Perfect House, right in the middle of the town, where he is not allowed to go into the living room, and everything is covered in plastic. His life is set out for him by his forceful father, who makes every decision in his life based on if it will help advance his career. Until one day when his teacher, Ms. Baker, begins an independent study session with him, exploring the works of William Shakespeare. He then begins to wonder who it is he will become.

This book was amazing! Schmidt’s style is intricate and clear as a bell. Holling’s life starts out very small, mostly petty school troubles. He sees things through a narrow lens: “My teacher hates me.” However, as soon as he starts reading Shakespeare, his world is gradually widened. He sees other people’s point of view, and he gets a glimpse into lives that are not his own. He starts memorizing passages, and using Shakespeare’s words in every day speech. He begins to see that his father might not be the man he wanted to be. That there are things worth fighting for. That there are many sides to a question.

And the beautiful thing is that it doesn't happen through one brief training montage and he understands Shakespeare and life all at once. He reads one play at a time throughout the year, and each play reflects what is going on in his busy life. When he is dealing with love, he is reading Romeo and Juliet. When he is dealing with his father, he is reading Hamlet. When he is confronting a bully, he is reading Macbeth. While none of the stories really have clever exact parallels like so many of the YA Shakespeare lit painfully does, his knowledge of the work sheds a new light on his life, as Shakespeare should.

Since Holling begins to see the world differently, he starts to make different choices. Bolder ones. Riskier ones. Life-affirming ones. He begins to stand up for what he believes in. He stands up against his father, and he finds himself. And the brilliant thing is, he does it as a middle school boy.

This book touched me deeply, not only for the transformative power of Shakespeare (which my mother taught me in middle school), but because of the relationship between Holling and his older sister Heather. I have a younger brother who is often much smarter than me in many ways, and whom I can count on to take care of me like Holling did.

I highly recommend this for anyone trying to show kids the power of Shakespeare, and any adult who knows the power of Shakespeare and needs to remember what it was like to be a kid again and to choose for yourself.

Here is my friend Drown My Books' review of the book!