Friday, August 30, 2013

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Love in the Time of Global Warming is Francesca Lia Block’s latest young adult novel.  I know, I know, I swore after the last novel I wouldn’t read anymore of her books but I was excited to see that she was using classic mythology as a source of inspiration, something she has done to good effect in the past.  And if there is some hubris implied in her following the footsteps of such writers as Joyce and the Coen brothers by choosing Homer’s The Odyssey, she could certainly have done worse. 

Well, she could have done worse in her choices.  I’m not sure she could have written a worse novel.  It starts off very well.  Penelope, who calls herself Pen, is confronting her nemesis, holding a sword that, when she faces a giant, seems more like a needle.  Now, anyone who is caught up in George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire may immediately think of Arya; however, it is evident Block is alluding to Odysseus’ patiently waiting and ever-faithful wife Penelope.

The very next chapter flashes back to a time before but it also starts the story with a fierce momentum as a tsunami, an aftershock of an earthquake, that destroys the world Pen has known.  From there the story loosely follows the narrative tradition of Homer although block does take some creative liberties, shuffling the moments so that they don’t quite align with Homer’s epic.  I would have been okay with that had it strengthened the overall story’s theme and tension but I can’t say that it necessarily did.  Then, she overlays Home with L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as Pen meets and befriends three disparate characters who join her on her quest to find her family. 

Although the novel starts off strongly, it quickly unravels and becomes increasingly messy, so chaotic that the author couldn’t even create a way for Pen to fulfill her own destiny.  Rather, she is ultimately rescued by an outsider and the denouement is so insultingly convenient as to be without any gratification. 

I wanted to love this book so much because it does put contemporary issues into a magical realism framework, not unlike her still brilliant Weetzie Bat novels.  But the clichés are too evident (shock of hair, really?) and for any author who has published as many novels as she, one would think she’d have learned to avoid clichés by now.  There are awkward and confusing transitions and her characters remain familiarly unchanged, two-dimensional and not unlike characters already seen more than once in previous novels by this author.  With the plethora of young adult dystopian novels, this is one that can and should be skipped.

Now here’s hoping I listen to my own better wisdom and just give up on Block ever attaining the magic and miracle she did in her early novels.  Rather than getting better, she seems to be getting worse, as she hits the same note over and over again but increasingly hits it off-key.

And that is where my amazon review ended.  As it turns out, I seem to have forgotten to put my review for her previous novel in my blog so I'll copy what I posted on amazon over here.  In the meantime, I wanted to be more specific than I was in the above.  

I make reference to the clichés she uses and I honestly don't understand why she falls into this every damn time she writes a novel.  She's better than this.  For instance she writes, "Hex whispers the warning but his eyes are shout-big" (84).  Now, had she said "whispers the warning but his eyes shouted something else" that would have been cliché and perhaps she comes a little too close to it but I still think this was an interesting choice.  And then there's this:  
Now we have water and jars of pickled vegetables and meats.  They float in their brine like strange, colorful fetuses. (154)
The image is vivid and disgusting all at once, a wonderful way of showing the reader that the characters are not sure what to think of the jars they have taken.  

In other words, Block has the writing chops but for whatever reason she and her editor allow her to be lazy.  For instance, there is this impossibly confusing transition from one paragraph to the next:
There are lots of cracked carved stone plaques depicting obscenely old-mannish-looking, screaming babies straddling piles of fruit.
There's a woman, stretched languidly on a leather coach with lion-carved feet, her black hair falling over her breasts.  (76)
A good editor would have point out that the two sentences both beginning with "there" is misleading and confusing and it took me a couple of readings to realize that this woman on the coach is a real person and not merely another carving.  And need I point out the redundant description of first carved plaques and then carved feet?  Am I the only one who finds such things lazy and obvious?

As usual, Block's young women do not go on to further their education after high school but let's give her a break this time around.  After all, this novel is dystopian and everything has been destroyed so there really is no high school for Pen or her companions to attend let alone teachers to mentor them.  But these characters are all too familiar, all too similar, to ones that have populated the pages of her previous novels.  Aside from physical characteristics, there really isn't much new here.

Her novels are overflowing with descriptions of food and allusions to music.  This book also has a lot of references to artwork, which makes sense because the protagonist's mother is a painter.  Perhaps her readers will make the effort to look for the paintings online and see the images for themselves.

Perhaps the next time Block publishes a new book I'll not hope for the best because, no matter how low I try to set my expectations, I really am never prepared for just how bad the latest novel will prove to be.  Next time I'm tempted, I'll just reread some of the novels of hers I've loved and be done with it.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bibi's Bookshelf

Once again, I'm afraid I borrowed books that Bibi never got around to having read to her.  Oh well.  As a result, however, these reviews are my personal response and don't include Bibi's response or reaction to the stories.  

Cookie, the Walker by Chris Monroe is about a dog, Cookie, that walks on her hind legs and becomes famous as a result.  Her life, however, becomes complicated and she becomes increasingly more miserable as her fame grows.  The story uses repetition, which is great for younger children, and the drawings are fun and simple.

I honestly have no clue what this book is supposed to be saying.  Is the message here that a child who stands out shouldn’t because being unique will lead to misery?  That seems to be how it ends, with Cookie conforming to walking around on all fours because that’s what dogs do.  This same theme is explored by Shel Silverstein in Lafcadio, the Lion WhoShot BackIt’s a chapter book about a lion who learns how to shoot a gun and has an existential crisis when fame and fortune follow.  The ending, however enigmatic, is more gratifying.  For that reason, I would not want Monroe’s book read to my granddaughter and I really wouldn’t want her to read it for herself.

The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers is about a rabbit who is frightened by its own shadow.  Eventually, however, the rabbit is forced to confront fear and comes to embrace the “black rabbit” that follows him wherever he goes. 

The illustrations are a perfect match to the story and there is a lot to learn from the simple story.  There is an almost racist undertone to the story—a white rabbit afraid of its black shadow—but this seems more a Jungian theme of The Self confronting and facing The Shadow Self.    I actually borrowed the book from the library because I thought I would dislike it.  Wait.  That sounds wrong.  I mean, I borrowed it not expecting I would like it, mostly because the cover implied a sort of racial overtone that I would find offensive.  That is not how I felt after reading it. 

For those parents who were intrigued by my review of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, I would recommend this book as a perfect complement for younger children. 

Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal is the antithesis of Cooke, the Walker.  In this story a punctuation mark learns that it’s okay to be yourself.  Imagine that.  A book that encourages the reader to unique, to be him/her-self.  To not deny what is the true self, rather than trying to conform to outside expectations.  Especially when those expectations are really self-perceptions.

This book was probably my favorite.   After all, don’t most adults struggle with not getting too caught up in what others are thinking?  Don’t we all go through times when we are less worried about being true to ourselves than we are about what other people perceive us to be?  Are we good enough?  Thin enough?  Smart enough?  Worthy enough?  This book answers those questions with a resounding YES and think that’s a good message for children to read.  Plus, children will learn about punctuation on pages that are designed to look like penmanship practice pages.  I mean, can it get any better than that?  Sometimes I read a library book I wish I could immediately buy for Bibi.  This is one of those books.   

Monday, August 26, 2013

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield is one of those books that seems to be recommended by everyone.  I can see why.  The chapters are very short, easy to read, the information is accessible, and many of the ideas presented are inspiring. 

Pressfield does a good job of sharing from his personal experience the challenges that the artist experiences—the resistance, the doubt, the hubris.  Much of the focus is on the various ways in which Resistance manifests, complementing such works as The Artist’s Way by Julia Cmaeron and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  Procrastination and the Inner Critic are just two of the forms Resistance takes and Pressfield focuses the first 2/3 of the book on reminding, even urging, the artist to get the work done, regardless.

The last third of the book slips into a lot of new age spirituality that probably appeals to many readers.  I suspect that many of the people who recommended this book to me—and a lot of people recommended it—did so because of this final third of the book.  I found the last part to be the least insightful, the least practical, the least interesting. 

With that said, the bulk of this book is definitely worth reading and worth sharing, as evidenced by my immediately giving it to my daughter after I had finished reading it.  I doubt I’m the only one who felt disappointed by the last part and I suspect she will feel as I did, that this is a very good book that ends in a fizzle.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Feast for Crows by George R R Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R R Martin is the fourth novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  At the novel’s end there is a note from the author, explaining that he was writing the fourth book and realized that there was too much content for one book so he split the stories along two logical story lines.  As with all of the novels, each chapter has a different character’s point-of-view.  Because of split, the focus in this novel is mostly on small group of the many familiar characters while there are characters, minor secondary voices that come forward for single chapters. 

The final outcome is a story that drags more than any of the previous novels.  The pace is way off with pages and pages of exposition that explains the politics of what is happening.  While I can understand why this is occasionally necessary but so much of this book is taken up with these things that I felt like Martin split the stories in the wrong way. 

Then there’s the ludicrous sex scene which has only one redeeming quality in that it is not gratuitous.  I could change the names of the characters and share this stupid scene with anyone and they would be able to tell that it is written by a man for a male audience.  If it had also been gratuitous, I would have had no problem with disliking this book cover-to-cover.  The only story lines that don’t drag and aren’t overly redundant are too few and far between.  The paths of some more characters begin to cross.  Yay!  Not for long or long enough, anyway. 

And the cliff-hanger endings for some of the characters annoys me regardless of who is doing the writing.  I realize that the first and second novels definitely leave wonderful narrative threads dangling.  I don’t know if this time it offended more because I didn’t enjoy much of what preceded the final chapters or if they were particularly heinous this time around. 

For all that I find it somewhat irksome to see how the television series drops some seemingly significant storylines, I honestly think that the show will do better with this book than Martin did.  They couldn’t do much worse because they still have some of the most interesting, some for being likable and others for being despicable, characters.  I hope that the fifth book is better but my expectations have been severely lowered.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents by Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons

Anxious Kids, AnxiousParents:  7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycleand Raise Courageous and Independent Children by Reid Wilson PhD and Lynn Lyons LICSW is a wonderful resource for parents who struggle with how to best approach the natural anxiety of a child, especially when they, themselves, may be trying to cope with their own anxieties.   It is not surprising that parents who are prone to worry often unintentionally reinforce the same patterns of thinking in their own children with how they think they should respond when anxiety manifests.

The authors make a point of explaining first how worry works on a physiological level, how and they the amygdala reacts to stimuli.  There is a purpose behind the adrenal rush, as we all know from the idea of “fight or flight.”  Understanding the how and why is fundamental to everything that the authors put forward in the rest of the book, and they wisely advise the reader to not oversimplify things for children.  Why not, after all, explain to how the brain works and what anxiety is meant to do?  Sure, smaller children may find the technical terms somewhat confusing but they can, nonetheless, understand through these terms that what they feel is normal, to be expected, and not necessarily indicative of any real danger. 

If knowledge is power, this information is meant to empower both parents and the child(ren) to confront anxiety.  The rest of the book provides simple tools that build one upon the other to first allow for worry, knowing that worry will come, and even confront it head-on.  Each chapter has suggestions for the adult reader to apply to their own experience, activities to use with the anxious child, and ways for parents and children to work together to ensure the child’s independence in a gradually self-reinforcing manner.  For the parent who is not given to worry, the tools show how to work with the child and the worry rather than against it.  For the parent who is also feeling anxiety, the tools can be used to facilitate mutual growth.  Examples of what not to do are also given but there is never any blame.  Rather, the authors are careful to explain how it is almost inevitable that parents, innately inclined to protect and nurture, are bound to do things that will accommodate and reinforce anxiety rather than reduce it. 

I don’t think I was an overly worried parent and I still learned a great deal from reading this book.  There will eventually be a free ebook, Playing With Anxiety, made available for parents to use with children but this was not yet available.   The latter part of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents focuses on how to use this ebook and it is good to see that it will be offered for free.  I doubt, however, the free ebook will make much sense without having read the primary text from cover-to-cover.  I think any parent would benefit from reading this book, especially one with a child or children exhibiting patterns of anxiety behavior, whether separation anxiety, fear of new experiences, and other typical worries that enter a child’s life.  Teaching that there are ways to respond, and not react, to worry will only empower the anxious and allow a new freedom in facing life. 

Independence could very well be the greatest gift a parent can provide a child, after love.

Back to School logo Back to School Reading Challenge: Update #1This book is my first submission for Joy Weese's Back-to-School Reading Challenge.  Although I worry about our finances (I'm not currently working so that seems more like a normal response to a circumstance over which I have little control), I am not an anxious person by nature.  I feel concern for my family and friends but mostly I trust they can all take care of themselves.  However, I do know people who do get anxious and this book gave me a great deal of insight into the differences between healthy responses to circumstances and how anxiety can be limiting, cutting one off from new experience, from growing emotionally and intellectually, etc.  I've signed up for email updates about the ebook Playing With Anxiety because I am curious to read it once it is made available.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman is celebrating 50 years in print and there’s a reason why this book has survived where so many others have fallen out of print.  This novel, about Sylvia Barrett’s first teaching experience in a New York City high school explores the challenges of being an English teacher, slogging through the bureaucracy while desperately trying to touch just one student’s life.  Kauffman drew on her experience as a teacher to create a vivid picture of what it is like for one young woman to try to make a difference.

What makes this novel unique is how the story is told.  Rather than using typical prose, Kauffman tells her story through school bulletins, notes exchanged between the teachers, letters the protagonist sends to her best friend, suggestions stuffed into the suggestion box, and more.  The ludicrous nature of the bureaucracy had me laughing aloud while some of the notes the students share are heartbreaking. 

In many ways, this novel is a product of its time.  It is quaint to read about glue-sniffing being a problem (now known as huffing) and that children malingering in the halls is a discipline problem when contemporary schools are facing far more serious issues.  Still, there are stories here that are as timely as any—students who are working to help their parents are too tired to turn in homework while others are being pushed by parents to drop out altogether because education is a waste of time.  Sylvia Barrett’s mother sends her newspaper articles about the dangers of a single woman living in The Big City while the students express their rage at the war, at racism, at how frustrating it is to be considered a minor when confronted with major world issues each and every day.

Yet the novel also manages to remain relevant, even timely, in spite of its Delaney cards and wood hall passes.  How does a teacher provide a thorough education to her students in the face of a librarian who doesn’t want any students to handle the books, a dearth of sufficient textual resources, in a classroom where there aren’t even enough chairs for all of the students to sit?  What is the logic of asking a teacher to send a student who is absent to the office to address the need for attendance, having an end term exam a few weeks into the term, or insisting a student should pay a late fee for a borrowed library book when the student is no longer enrolled? 

This novel will make you laugh, touch your heart, and frustrate and inspire all at once.  I read it when I was a teenager and again before I went to college.  I don’t go out of my way to reread novels now because there are so many wonderful books and so little time. Still, this one is a good one to revisit and I’m glad (very glad even) that I did.  And if you haven’t seen the movie, starring Sandy Dennis, it’s worth visiting as well.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll be around for the 75th anniversary.  I have no doubt this book will still be in print for many more milestones.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Gifts of Gratitude by Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker

Gifts of Gratitude:  The Joyful Adventures of a Life Well Lived by Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker is a memoir told in very short fragments that spans several decades, various states within the US, and explores the changes in a woman's life.  From single woman with dreams of being in the spotlight to married mother of two sons to divorced single-parent, Baker travels the spectrum of life's experiences and she shares them with a narrative voice that sounds conversational and relaxed.

Have you ever read a book you really wanted to like but found yourself struggling every turn of the page?  The problem is two-fold.  For one, the publisher deserves to be put out of business.  I cannot imagine ever consciously choosing to buy another book from this publisher, not if the quality of this book's publication is indicative of the "care" they give their authors and their readers.  This book is so poorly edited, with words dropped or mis-spelled, leaving sentences convoluted and confusing.  Even the layout is a disaster.  There is a chapter that begins on page 109 but only the title is there, the chapter itself begins on the next page.  Every page in this book looks like a thrown together self-published mess.  And any author deserves better than this.  A quality publisher would never allow such carelessness to reach final publication.

The book itself suffers from a desperate need of good editing, even if you can lay a lot of the blame at the publisher's doorstep.  The memoir is told in fragments, not following a strictly linear construction.  This can be used to very good effect; Susanna Kaysen used this method in Girl, Interrupted and it worked very well because the story itself is about a fracturing of a young woman's psyche and life.  Certainly it has been used brilliantly in novels.  To be effective, however, it is essential that the intention behind using a non-linear narrative frame makes sense.  Each piece should fit together in some manner, whether thematically or emotionally.

It takes a lot of skill to make this work and I'm afraid Baker lacks that skill. There are blatant moments of narrative disruptions that make the memoir feel thrown together rather than carefully constructed.  For instance, the chapter that has its title on page 109 "One Last Hawaiian Adventure . . ." tells about a canoe trip she, her husband, their two sons, and some friends took.  The very next chapter "Galen, Galen, and More Galen" discusses the deeper meaning of her name.  The chapter that follows that immediately returns to the a time closely following the canoe trip.  It would have made far more sense to put this chapter, "Careful What You Ask For," closer to the one describing the adventurous trip and either move the chapter about her name to a more logical and emotionally well-integrated point in her story or drop it altogether.

I am not one to argue for a strictly linear narrative, whether in a novel or memoir.  I frankly love seeing how post-modern literature is allowing authors to express themselves in unique ways.  Nonetheless, some stories do require a more conservative approach to story-telling.  An editor would have surely urged Baker to reconsider the placement of some of her stories, shuffling.  For instance, I would have encouraged her to try to merge the chapter about her name with the chapter "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" or drop the content altogether.  There is definitely room to pare some details with an eye to less-is-more.  She makes a lot of connections she finds profoundly meaningful without clearly explaining how one thing relates let alone weaves itself significantly with another.  The reader is left with her saying something is relevant but never feels the relevance for herself.  Baker tells but doesn't fully show.

For instance, we do "meet" the author's sons through her stories but I can tell you nothing about them.  Yet, they are now adults, living full, rich lives, presumably with well-rounded personalities but after reading this memoir they are nothing but ciphers, blank entities.  This in sharp contrast to the abbreviated yet richly-developed personas of Sonali Deraniyaga's children in her memoir Wave.  Nor does Baker offer the reader anything deeply universal, as does Winterson.  Adding insult to entirely too much injury, the book isn't even well researched.  She quotes von Goethe without citing the quotation and, sure enough, it's one of those ubiquitously misquoted internet things.  (Seriously, this is why every quote should be cited and if you cannot find a citation for a quote don't share it and certainly don't include it in a book you're planning to publish.  Or, if you insist, find a publisher who knows how to do simple research because this is where a good editor would have caught the problem before it reached the final printing.)  She also gets the name of one of Buckminster Fuller's children wrong.  These incidental mistakes throw doubt on too much and when she then throws out stories that she herself admits are hard to believe, going so far as to dismiss a rational explanation when one is offered (as in the case when she sees a spaceship which her husband suggests was a dream), it is hard to feel anything but an apathetic disconnection from the writer and her story.

And it's all so hugely frustrating.  Between the quality of the publication itself and the poorly edited manner in which the memoir is written, I am disappointed.  I feel that, with strong editorial hand and a little more spit and polish, this memoir could be profound and even inspiring.  Not all of the fault can be placed on the publisher but a better publisher would have helped this memoir to shine rather than dull down what might be a truly dynamic story.  Whatever else, if Baker does decide to try to her hand at publishing again, I hope she will seek out a good editor and a different publisher because Burman Books failed her utterly.

Still, I am grateful I had an opportunity to read this book and am thankful to goodreads for offering it to me for review.  It breaks my heart I could not have liked it at all or even a little more than I did.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bibi's Bookshelf

Invitation to Ballet:  A Celebration of Dance and Degas by Carolyn Vaughn

I thought Bibi would love this book and I was absolutely correct!  The book is full of interesting facts about ballet, introducing the reader to some of the history and tradition behind ballet, including the basic five positions, clothing, and even some of the stories behind the most famous ballets are included alongside Degas's gorgeous pastel drawings of ballerinas in the studio as well as on the stage.  History and art are perfectly blended in this book.  Borrow a dvd of a ballet from your local library, listen to some music from different ballets, and you can easily use this book as a launching pad to still more creative exploration and learning.  I always love it when a book excites more curiosity and this one does that brilliantly.

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?:  The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone

This book was a little too sophisticated in content to hold Bibi's interest beyond listening to the story itself.  The illustrations by Marjorie Priceman are vivid and delightful and may have as much to do with why Bibi didn't lose interest altogether.  Unlike the previous book, she had no real curiosity afterwards which is why I'm positive that, had I waited to share this book with her until she was a little older, she might have been more excited by it.  Of course, by then she'll be old enough to read it to me and that will make the book all the more exciting for us both.  For now, it'll stay on the library bookshelf until a future date.

Little Lost Tiger by Jonathan London

Gorgeous illustrations by Ilya Spirin make this picture book a treasure.  The story is a bit intense, however.  When mother tiger goes to seek food for herself and her cub, the two are separated by a fire.  Small children, those who are sensitive, may find it a bit alarming to see the little tiger desperately trying to escape danger and find his mother.  This story does have a happy ending and the author has provided some information about Siberian Tigers at the end of the book that will allow the content to grow with the child.  However, for a five-year-old this story may be a bit much.  It really depends on your child.

Ready, Set, 100th Day by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace

This book is perfect to give to a child getting ready to go to school for the first time!  Of course, kindergartners are pretty enthusiastic but this book is all about doing something special for the 100th day of school and not about the first day.  Bunny Minna wants to do something extra special for the 100th day of school and, as she plans out her project, children will learn mathematical skills like counting by 10s, creating sets, and even multiplication.  The paper illustrations using origami and recycled  papers, crayon and marker, are inspired yet simple, likely to stir some creativity in a young reader.  I just found this book to be adorable from cover to cover and am thrilled to have given a copy to Bibi.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Doctor Who Series III, Vol: Hypothetical Gentleman

Doctor Who Series III, Vol 1:  Hypothetical Gentleman is a graphic novel, divided into two parts.  The first art is written by Andy Diggle and illustrated by Mark Buckingham while the second is written by Brandon Seifert and illustrated by Phillip Bond.  The two stories work together although both have open-ended conclusions promising more graphic novel fun.  If you were especially fond of the more humorous episodes of Dr Who then you will enjoy this novel that has the quirkiness with which we are all familiar.

The truth is, I’m not overly fond of the eleventh doctor.  The first story dumps the Doctor, Amy, and Rory into Victorian England.  Rory just wants to celebrate his anniversary but the Doctor has other plans and the Tardis is having precision problems.  These problems follow them into the second story, which I enjoyed a wee bit more.  Amy, tired of the bickering, insists the Doctor and Rory get to know one another over a pint.  When the two try to circumvent her intention, things get complicated, leaving a few narrative threads dangling, with an opportunity for more stories to come as the Doctor and his companions try to tie up loose ends.

The artwork is definitely in keeping with the tone of the stories—fun to the point of being almost cartoonish.  A good choice, albeit not one I fully appreciate.  I can see how effective the style works with the stories.  Nonetheless, I feel both artists are capable of doing better.  With that said, they played off one another’s style so well that it’s almost impossible to tell that there are two artists working collaboratively in one book.  I have to applaud that.

Over all, a good book and one that helps feed the addiction while one waits for the next season.  
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