Thursday, June 25, 2009

Summer Book Splash

The ladies at Teen Lit Review are hosting a summer reading challenge, and I've found in the past that challenges like this are a great way to motivate myself to actually DO the reading. Here is my wishlist of books for this summer:

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress
(this is cheating, I suppose, because I'm almost finished with the book already!)
The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land by Conevery Bolton Valencius
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose
A Difference of Opinion by Nancy Dane
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (this makes the third time this book has been on my list for a reading challenge - maybe this time I'll actually read it!)
The River Between Us by Richard Peck
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Pioneer Breed by Glenn R. Vernam (one of those out-of-print books I remember from my youth and managed to find - hope it's as good as I remember)

That's not a very extensive list, but I think it's pretty ambitious for me, given everything that's going on this summer (our family is going to Yellowstone - I can't wait!) I also have a tendency to get distracted from my list, meaning something will catch my eye and I will pick it up and start reading. But it's a start! Maybe I will even exceed my list! (With two hefty nonfiction books on the list? I doubt that....)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Disappointment Is Even More Bitter When Promise Is Great...

Did you ever have a package for your birthday or Christmas that looked and sounded like the most fantastic gift ever? You just knew it was Just What You Always Wanted. You quivered with the anticipation of the moment you would be able to pry open the lid of the box and behold the wonderful gift. When the time finally came, you held the gift in your hands for a moment before opening it, enjoying that last bit of anticipation before you opened the box and discovered......socks. Or something like socks, servicable and entirely practical.

That's just how I felt shortly after reading the first couple of chapters of Red Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells. It's been a long time since I've had the chance to read any historical fiction for young adults, especially historical fiction about American history. I picked up this book at a school book fair, but had other reading obligations that kept me from being able to read Wells' book until recently. It was with great anticipation that I opened the book and read the first page.

The first chapter was fine, and in fact, it set up a nice mystery for the rest of the book: "All else that followed during the war came of those three promises, two kept and one broken, made the week before I was born." But beginning with the second chapter, Wells shifted to using the present tense ("When you first see me, it is July 30, 1861."), and I felt a little itch of irritation start in the back of my mind. I really dislike present-tense narratives. Really dislike. In my opinion, present tense gives a book the tone of a book written for very young children. That tone simply wasn't appropriate for the mature ideas and events with which India has to wrestle in this book.

That brings me to another problem: the character of India was inconsistent. Some of the time, she is this tough, confident girl who holds the family together when her father is off in the war. Other times, she seemed to have more in common with my 10-year-old daughter, carrying a doll around. (Actually, even my 10-year-old daughter doesn't carry a doll around anymore.)

Actually, the characters in this book all seemed to have problems of development and consistency. To tell the truth, there was no one in the book I came to care about. There was no one that I identified with and was pulling for. They all seemed sort of like paper dolls acting out a story, but with no emotional depth - when the story was rife with opportunity for emotion! For example, India falls in love (I guess) with her tutor, Emory Trimble. There are scenes in which they are working together on science experiments and recording data, but I don't really see that they are coming to have any feelings for each other until Wells has India tell us they do. Here is the description of their first kiss: "Emory's kiss stays for only the drawing in and letting out of a single breath, but it is warm and steady, as I have pictured it so many times when no one can read my unchaste thoughts." And that's it. I'd like to get to feel that moment. That was my biggest disappointment - that I wasn't able to immerse myself into the characters and their lives.

Wells does have some nice historical details included in the book, and the plot has some interesting twists. Wells also tried to "open our eyes" to the poor medical practices in the Civil War and to the very circumscribed role of women of that time. Actually, I thought she was rather heavy-handed in doing that for both issues. I might write some more about that in a different post.

I'm not sorry I read the book. I'm just really disappointed that it fell so far short of its potential. I'm sorry that it is probably one of those books that I will forget rather quickly, stuck in the "sock drawer" of my mind.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Wonder of Little Moments

There's a song I enjoy by Rob Thomas with lyrics that include "Our lives are made in these small hours/ These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate/ Time falls away but these small hours/ These small hours still remain." As I finished reading The Side-Yard Superhero, by Rick D. Niece, those lyrics came to mind, because this book is a celebration of the "small hours" that make up our lives and of how memory keeps those small hours with us.

This "automythography," as Niece calls it, is a collection of stories about the people and events that impacted Niece as he was growing up in small-town DeGraff, Ohio. Nothing all that extraordinary happened to the author when he was young, and that's exactly what makes this story extraordinary. Niece is a good storyteller with a talent for observing the little details. He uses those details to frame truths about life, sometimes stated, sometimes implicit. The stories in the book are loosely framed by young Rickie's relationship with Bernie Jones, a boy who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy.

There were a number of entertaining stories in the book, but my favorite chapters were the two in which Niece told about the carnival that came to DeGraff. Several small stories are imbedded in that larger story, including a very touching account of how Rickie and his friends tried to help Bernie Jones experience the carnival - in some ways, they succeeded, but in other ways, they failed. I also liked but was sort of saddened by the story of Rickie's trip to the "Nature's Oddities" tent, when he got a "back-stage" view of one of the performers. My favorite bit, though, was Niece's description of watching his parents ride the merry-go-round together: "It's nice when your parents are in love and not afraid to show it." Again, he's hit on one of those unimportant little moments in life that mean everything.

Having thought about the book some after finishing it, I think I see another theme at work, as well. At several points, Rickie is made aware of the limitations Bernie faced because he was bound to the wheelchair - he can't go to school, he can't ride the Ferris wheel. It was a major undertaking for Rickie to take Bernie along on a portion of his paper route one afternoon. However, it seems to me that a number of the characters in the book have lives that are restricted in some way. There is Miss Lizzie, who rarely leaves her house after long ago losing her fiance. There is Danny, one of Rickie's friends, who is emotionally crippled by a terrible set of parents. There is Tim, the carnival performer, who is doomed by being a little person in the 1950s to being "Teeny Tiny Tim." There is Mrs. Waite, who is limited in activity and lifespan by an illness.

Sometimes people in the story try to break out of the restrictions. At first I thought the story about Fern Burdette was sort of strange. Fern had been a pioneering female journalist, and on her return to DeGraff, wore nothing but a brassiere from the waist up. After reading the rest of the book, though, and thinking about it, I can see that Fern was trying to break out of society's limitations on her. She'd been doing it all her life, but once her career was over, abandoning the "normal" dress code was a clear way to say, "I refuse to let you tell me what to do." Even though she tried to break free, I don't think Fern was entirely successful; everyone considered her an eccentric -- loveable, but definitely eccentric.

I don't know that Niece would agree with me on this point, but I think he faced his own limits growing up in a small town. Unlike most of the other characters in the book, though, he was able to escape the limits by attending Ohio State University. After that point, he was never the same, and life in DeGraff disappeared as well - his family moved from the town. I'm not trying to say the limits placed by the small town were negative. I think it's like Bernie's wheelchair. At the end of the book, the adult Rickie returns to Ohio to visit Bernie in a nursing home. Bernie is pretty much bedridden by that point, and Rickie realizes that as much as the wheelchair limited by Bernie could do, it also provided him with at least some degree of freedom and self-control. So what is a wheelchair -- or a small-town upbringing? Is it something that keeps you from riding the Ferris wheel? Or is it something that supports you as you go out on adventures like helping Miss Lizzie give out Halloween treats? Is it something you can occasionally escape to ride the tea cups, something comfortable and familiar you can return to when the ride is over?

On the surface, this is an entertaining and nostalgic collection of short stories. But below the surface of all those little moments, I think we can find some big truth.