Category Archives: book review

Cross post – Book Review: Beyond the Sling

A cross post review from my other blog:  In this day and age of detachment parenting Mayim Bialik, or Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler for you Big Bang Theory fans, attempts to address the myths, the trials and tribulations, and the benefits of attachment parenting.   As an advocate for birth empowerment as well as a prosthelitizing believer in natural childbirth the words of a woman with a PhD in neuroscience held allure.  To me it was about finding someone who had done a home birth, breastfed (even did extended breastfeeding), and unschooled her children who was so credentialed the world was sure to stand up and see the validity in what so many of us non doctorate holding moms already know: learning is innate, our bodies are designed to propagate our species as well as take care of our young, and submitting to your babe’s needs does not mean you are permissive.


Unfortunately, when I caught a few clips of her on television while promoting this book it seems as though the world does not want/need credentials to view these things with validity, and instead seems to hold fastidiously to the notion that kids should be separate and independent of the parent almost from birth – the sex life of the parents holding higher import than bonding of each parent with their children.

This book takes on the issue of a sex life and the family bed with anecdotes and personal examples, but the most important aspects -the biology, anthropology, and psychology of infants-  are dealt with in both a blend of science and personal outtakes from her life.   Take, for example, this bit from her chapter about gentle discipline and particularly about the notion of telling a child to stop crying/discouraging them from crying:

Tears have been found to contain small amounts of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.  Crying may serve to release tension and stress from tiny bodies, and it is normal and healthy.  Seeing crying as a natural and reasonable form of communication removes the stigma our culture associates with it.  It may not be the most effective communication tool, but it is sometimes the only one small children have in their limited arsenal.

As was typical of her work this was followed up with a bit of psychology as well as an example from her own family:

Some family and friends found it funny (or perhaps uncomfortable or unsettling?) and mocked our boys’ crying, albeit playfully.  This is, frankly, not at all helpful, and it perpetuates the idea that children shouldn’t cry when we think they shouldn’t.

This next bit I’m sharing simply because I found it beautifully stated – from the same section, but in a subsection called “Violence”:

The distinction between hitting in anger (as in “the heat of the moment”) as opposed to hitting as part of a purportedly “calm,” regimented spanking is an academic one but not a practical one; both methods involve hitting a child, thereby causing a tiny brain to release neurotransmitters and hormones to cope with pain and fear while suppressing fight/flight pathways.  The simplest reason we don’t hit is this: hitting is hitting.  It’s not love.  It’s not teaching.  It’s hitting.  You can say you are hitting with love, or that you are using hitting to teach something, but it’s still hitting.

Her sections on breastfeeding and natural childbirth are equally important, although for more information on the benefits of these practices I can not recommend Pushedor Born in the USA (I will review Dr. Marsden Wagner’s book at a later date) enough.  It is my sincerest wish that more people would read this book with an open mind.  Kids have nothing to lose by a parent reading this and taking much of its wisdom to heart and everything to gain.

Have you read it?  Have a favorite or not so favorite section?


Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Per the book jacket:

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down.  His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job.  But <r. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming – a battle for the very soul of America… and they are in its direct path.

To say that is an overly simplistic and practically boring synopsis compared to what my experience of it would be an understatement.  This work takes myths and legends of gods from many cultures and gives them faces, expounds upon their personalities, and brings them to life in a manner that is not wholly unlike what Toni Morrison does with her magical realism, but without the ethnocentric and overly wrought depressive tones.  The reader is taken on journeys to different times to learn how gods were brought to America or simply how the gods came into being each story told with a different flavor and oft times different narrative voice.  My favorite passage of the entire 588 page tome came in the section called “Coming to America 1778” :

Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.”  With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.  Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears?  To see him from the inside?  And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child?  And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us.  They are covered with a smooth, safe nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

This passage resonated with me a great deal and speaks to the heart of some of my views.  That said, there are a few areas where I would have preferred Gaiman to be slightly restrained in his sharing.  Mostly in that I really don’t like it when authors even mention characters needing to relieve themselves regardless of the vernacular used.  I get the idea that this is a way of demonstrating human action, that we might feel more grounded in the realism of a fantastic story with such details, but for me it’s extraneous.  When a character is human I assume they have to go to the bathroom upon waking and several more times throughout their day.  There’s also the matter of a few inconsistent point of views offered although they’re at least pretty clearly rendered even if mildly annoying when one happens across them.

But that’s the worst thing I have to say about this book and even to my thinking and ears it sounds awfully fussy.  Very much a worthwhile book to dedicate time to.  Gaiman is a master craftsman with an excellent literary voice and one of the most clever minds involved in modern fiction.  Is it any wonder I already have Fragile Things  on my TBR shelf?

Seriously, if you haven’t read it and enjoy GOOD fantasy, this is a must read.  And, heck, HBO is going to make a series out of it!

Review: A Game of Thrones

At the behest of several friends (you know who you are) I decided to delve into the George R.R. Martin fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Of course this meant beginning with the first book A Game of Thrones as I am not the kind of girl who starts in the middle (and since the end of it is not written yet there was no option to really cheat- which I wouldn’t have done anyway).

The plot is what I would consider to be typical fantasy in a similar vein of Tolkien.  Although, to call Martin “The American Tolkien” is completely ridiculous and does no favors to Tolkien and his mastery.  So, the qualifier is that this is medieval with fantastic elements and in a different world whose general rules of scenery and physics seems to be the similar to our own.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view, the hero of the work being Eddard Stark who hales from the cold lands in the north.  A judicious and honest ruler who takes matters of punishment directly into hand, including that of death when appropriate, he lives and dies by his honor.  A family he has as well; three sons, the oldest 15, two daughters, and a bastard son.  The honor of Eddard is such that he brings his bastard to his keep to be raised, despite the upset of his wife (the child was conceived shortly after their marriage while he was at war).  There are no games he plays in order to rule and so his existence, and those he fosters in his children, are that of integrity and not subversion.

Unfortunately, Eddard’s world shifts as he is offered the role of “Hand of the King” by his friend Robert – the king.  It necessitates him leaving his home in the North, his sons – one of whom is in a coma due to a fall off one of the keep’s buildings, and his wife; the two daughters he brings to court with him, one of whom is promised in marriage to the prince.  And into the world of betrayals, distrust, dishonesty, and the veritable pit of vipers he travels.

Some of the other points of view are Eddard Stark’s children:  Rob- the heir who has to become Lord of Winterfell in truth and action after his father, then mother, leave; Sansa – the oldest daughter in awe of glitter and propriety; Arya- the warrior daughter; Bran – the poor child who takes a great fall; Jon Snow – the bastard child assigned to The Wall where honor is your duty, to escape it means death; Catelyn – Eddard’s wife as she journeys through the land to find the why of her child’s accident.

There are two more besides for pov characters and they are worthy of note:  Tyrion Lannister, brother in law to the King; Daenerys, survivor of the overthrown king living in a sort of exile.  Tyrion Lannister is a member of a conniving family painted as the villains in the story and a dwarf with a seeming great capacity for cunning and compassion.  He is the only Lannister whose point of view we get in this 674 page book and his motivations are no clearer in the end than in the beginning.  Of all the characters in this book I think his psychology is the most complex and, therefor, he is the most intriguing (next to Jon Snow).

Daenerys was daughter to the murdered king once referred to as “The Dragon”.  At the age of 13 she has never seen her homeland, her father murdered by one of his guards (a Kingsguard by the name of Jaime Lannister dubbed “The Kingslayer” after his betrayal – yes, that Lannister; he is brother in law to King Robert) she is in the care of a rather insane and power hungry brother.  Married off to a man thought of as a barbarian in the land across the sea from her “home” to secure her brother the army he needs, she journeys into love and pregnancy as an exiled man of the realm provides intel to the King.  Her role, I am sure, will become more readily apparent in the tale as the series unfolds.

There are a few difficulties I have with this work.  The beginning unfolds well, a few stumbles as I got to know the characters (and why, WHY did Martin feel compelled to give a few people a couple completely different names?!)*, but the read is steady and pretty engrossing.  In truth, I only paused in my reading of it when I reached the point of the eight year old falling from a roof because I was traumatized.  Then Eddard and his girls make it to King’s Landing for his political role to begin and the writing, while it didn’t fall apart, it didn’t remain as constant as it should.  Despite it having so many points of view (these were not excruciatingly kept to, although this is a point of anal retention for me so it likely won’t bug many) each word felt necessary and justified.  The writing even seemed to suit the vague time stamp of “sometime before life as we truly know it existed”.  Then I get to Sansa’s point of view (a character I did not and still do not like, although she’s ALMOST redeemable to me at this point) at a tourney had in her father’s honor.

They watched the heroes of a hundred songs rid forth, each ore fabulous than the last.

Fabulous?  Fabulous?!?! Um, no.  Completely and totally not in the period and tone the author established.

Then, we get to describing those in the tourney.

Other riders Sansa did not know; hedge knights from the Fingers and Highgarden and the ountains of Dorne, unsung freeriders and new-made squires, the younger sons of high lords ad the heirs of lesser houses.  Younger men, most had done no great deeds as yet, but Sansa and Jeyne agreed that one day the Seven Kingdoms would resound to the sound of their names.  Ser Balon Swann.  Lord Bryce Caron of the Marches.  Bronze Yoh’s heir, Ser Andar Royce, and his younger brother Ser Robar, their silvered steel plate filigreed in bronze with the same ancient runes that warded their father. [There’s more.  I decided to spare you.]

A lot of these guys you’ll see later on, some I don’t remember if you see them again, but none of that matters.  This is an info dump that is completely unnecessary and, for me, after a couple hundred pages in, the last thing I want to see is the editor not bothering and the author not being critical of his own work enough to assess what the story absolutely needs.  I understand that some people might want the imagery of the armor Martin takes pains in describing, the idea of EVERYTHING being described an attractive feature, but for me…  Not so much.  It has to matter for me to care, and if a book is almost 700 pages long (I’ve heard the third in the series is longer) then I need to know the time I’m spending reading it is being taken seriously by the author and that everything is of great importance.

But for moments like this, told from the pov of Bran Stark, I still have a great fondness for the work:

Hodor lifted Bran as easy as if he were a bale of hay, and cradled him against his massive chest.  He always smelled faintly of horses, but it was not a bad smell.  His arms were thick with muscle and matted with brown hair.  “Hodor,” he said again.  Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name.  Old Nan had cackled like a hen when Bran told her that, and confessed that Hodor’s real name was Walder.  No one knew where “Hodor” had come from, she said, but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it.

I forgive Martin for not understanding a bale of hay can be really heavy.

Overall, it’s a fun read and, despite not being as enthralled at the end of the book as I was even halfway through, I have the second already out from my library and ready to be read.  I can not help but be intrigued by the issues of honor that are raised.  I find myself wondering how Martin will resolve them and what stance he’ll take.  Truth be told, this feels as though it tackles similar notions Franzen’s Freedom did but in a more philosophically succinct, logical, and appropriate manner (and despite the language snafus the thought process is far more complete and sophisticated here than that other work).  Some of the characters are complex and, truly, none of them are one dimensional.  If you have a want of reading modern fantasy I quite enthusiastically recommend this series.

And in case you didn’t know, it will be a miniseries on HBO starring Sean Bean.

Review: Animal Farm

The third book from that challenge I set for myself and, let me tell you, I’m glad it was a short read.

Orwell’s tale about animals taking over a farm, running the humans off the property and running it themselves, is a well known piece of anti-Socialist literature.  Animals, mistreated by their forgetful and oft-inebriated master, decided they needed and deserved a better life than the the one they currently were living.  Ideals were put forth, tales of revolution were whispered and encouraged amongst themselves, until a day finally arrived in which the glory of their notions were fully realized.  All were to be treated equally, a retirement age set for each so they might enjoy the last years of their lives in a fine pasture, and the work load was dispersed according to each animal’s capability.  Rations were of course imposed in order to have fair consumptions of their food production to ensure there were no usurpers.  Equality. It was the dream that kept them all going.

As is naturally the state of things, those with the higher intellects and the greater oration skills rose to the top and began delegating; faith in those delegating had already been secured.  Subterfuge came into existence as a way of securing power and getting rid of competition, the ideal of the farm now perverted to the ones who wanted to reign and reap instead of cooperate and share.  Where it once was considered wrong for animals to live like humans, those who were at the top of the political heap now slept in beds – the commandment on the wall changed to read “No animal shall sleep in beds with sheets“, drank whiskey – the commandment stating  “No animals shall drink alcohol to excess“, and walked on two legs – “Four legs good, Two legs better” (formerly: “Four legs good, Two legs bad”).

This book should be a warning to us all about power, that the old adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” being not only something we can understand in theory, but that has played out many times through history.  It is so very easy to link this to current day understandings as well as the philosophy under which the United States was founded and, indeed, formed through theoretically binding laws/limitations of the Constitution, but for right now I think it is prudent to take look at the literature itself.

Metaphorically this book is not innovative.  Truth is, Orwell was blatant in what he wanted to communicate and, I think, in the way he ended it showed us that the danger did not actually lay in pigs or dogs, but in the men who wanted power and the faith from the people so they might continue to have it.  As long as that faith remained in place, that self-doubt and incomprehension remained strong in each person, those with power could utilize all at their disposal to achieve whatever means they wanted.  As was certainly the case with Socialist Russia, China (yes, it’s not Communist), and Nazi Germany similar promises were made to an oppressed people.  The marketing was about identical to what the animals spoke of, the securing of power was first built on faith then fear, and all the while the elite garnered comfort for themselves.  It’s a sad tale, really.  Notions of looking out for one another, those who do not have as much as ourselves in either constitution or intellectual capabilities, is a wonderful thought but through a political structure like this it is exploited.  Truth be told, the most beautiful part about this work is its transparency.

While this is, in my opinion, far from the notion of high art in literature it is strong and a very necessary read.  If nothing else this serves as a great reminder to us all that the only thing standing between us and freedom is our belief that someone else who has power can do that which we as mere individuals can not and that the person/system will not abuse this power; that they know better for ALL of us, than we do.

Interesting tidbit:  There was a Hallmark movie made of this book?!

Review: Practical Magic

There comes a time when we all must come clean, and so I will do so now – with you.  I saw Practical Magic in the theater before I knew it was based upon a book.  Even worse?  I didn’t read the book until more than a decade after having seen the movie.  Not that I stopped watching the movie in the mean time since I LOVE it.  Easily one of the few movies I watch whenever I need a bit of hope and a pick me up while still getting a bit of a cry out in some of the more powerful scenes.  Even with “Based upon the novel by Alice Hoffman” coming up on the screen I still managed to always forget about picking it up at the bookstore.  Well, thanks to a gift card from a friend, and a review by a lovely blogging buddy, I finally picked it up and devoured it.

The story chronicles the lives of two sisters, Sally and Gillian Owens, as they grow up with their aunts who seem to possess a gift of meddling in people’s love lives.  For a fee, of course.  Sally, on the other hand, is fastidiously proper and has taken over the role of mother hen to all in the house – a reaction seemingly born of her newly orphaned status, while her sister Gillian continuously runs from commitment and love to avoid being left.

It is a tale that takes place over decades.  Each young girl grows, makes choices, and moves into adulthood, but it is Sally we mainly follow.  Her transitions through girlhood, to wife and mother, then to widow and the escape from her aunts’ home and the childhood taunting she had endured to a home of her own where she raises her daughters alone.   A woman gone rigid, who did what was “right” for her children, and who stayed alone is the portrait of Sally we see.  There is little of compassion to be had for this character at a certain point.  Her world is her children, unhealthily so, and upon them she places her expectations and demands, to carry out what they’re supposed to be doing.  And then, like a foreboding breeze, Gillian pulls into the driveway with her dead boyfriend in the car.

Wonderfully, the story evolves into one of relationships, the complexities and difficulties, the battles we have with ourselves in order to protect ourselves or perhaps the opportunity for sane risks to take in pursuit of love.  Gillian, Sally, and Sally’s daughters Antionia and Kylie are all three dimensional characters with wants, drives, and evolution while the supporting cast of male characters suffers not at all in the short times we get to know them.  It’s a remarkable and wonderful read with bits of magic, ecstasy, trauma, and joy.

The only complaint that I feel necessary to give voice to is the apparent need of Hoffman to use the f-bomb throughout the first 2/3 of the book instead of any other term for sex.  As a reader I felt it diminished the act in ways that were wholly inappropriate to character voice in those sections, that it might have been the author herself sneering at the idea of reverent sex.  While I do not need, nor do I believe in, each act of sex as qualifying for the term “making love” I do think that the word (brace yourselves) fuck should only be used where applicable, either as a curse or in description of a very particular mode of a physical act.    Still, the book was wonderful and very much worth checking out.

Have you read it?  Seen the movie?  What are your thoughts on the “f” word?

Review: Stargirl

While I was working myself out of the trenches of reading Into Thin Air and other assorted serious texts I decided to reach for a book from my TBR shelf.  This book, bright blue, small, and recalling to mind the dear friend who gave it to me saying, “This is a wonderfully optimistic book.  Read it when you need a lift.”  And so I did.  And so it was.

A Newberry winner this work of young adult fiction takes on similar themes that challenged books have.  “Stargirl”  is the main character and a love interest of the POV character, Leo.  She’s an outsider from the beginning, a new kid who had lived in town most of her life – homeschooled and content with being different.  There is nothing defiant in this character, no conscious decision to be different for the sake of uniqueness, just a steady and confident ownership of self.  Her name is something she chose, the clothes she wears are older, she decorates the desk she inhabits in each classroom with a cloth, a bud vase, and a small flower.  A eukelale is always with her so she can serenade students on their birthdays in the cafeteria during lunch time while her pet rat remains close.

Her caught-in-headlights eyes gave her a look of perpetual astonishment, so that we found ourselves turning and looking back over our shoulders, wondering what we were missing.

She laughed when there was no joke.  She danced when there was no music.

She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school.

In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses and stars, but she did not know what a football was.

She said there was no television in her house.

She was elusive.  She was today.  She was tomorrow.  She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl.  We did not know what to make of her.  In our minds we tried to pin her to a corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.

Leo is rather ordinary.  He doesn’t want to stand out and wants to continue running his popular student television show from the booth he sits in.  Then he ends up dating a person who cheers for every team, not just her school’s, someone who was invited on to the cheerleading squad and takes note of every event in the community section of the local paper.  Stargirl loves him.  And, as terrified as he is of how reviled she becomes in the school, he finds himself loving her as well.

When the turn of the tides occurs, however, she becomes shunned.  No one in the school will speak or look at her (except for one true friend) and when they start doing it to Leo he asks her to change.  To try and be like everyone else.

The story, of course, does not end there.  Spinelli brilliantly leads us around from Leo’s point of view as he trips through the pitfalls of needing peer acceptance and the conjoining need to judge and cast aside those who are so different they make us call into question our precepts of “correct” and “right”.  It is the tale of what happens when cateogries are acceptable, but when you remain outside an easily constructed box how it’s so easy for you to become hated.  Cautionary this may be, however, the beauty and optimistic tone of it make this a must read.


Review: Into Thin Air

This is my first non-fiction review EVER and, I’m sorry to say, it might show.  It is hard to assess the work that so necessarily deals with a troubling and disastrous event without addressing the author’s views as well.  As is much the case with fictional works it seems as though one of the necessary questions a reader should ask themselves is, “What is the purpose of this book?”  That this is a recitation of the author’s first hand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster does not make the question null and void, instead it seems more pointed and vital.

For those of you who don’t know, this work by Jon Krakauer recounts the guided expedition he took up Everest during the spring of 1996.  It was with a group called Adventure Consultants that Outside (a magazine) booked Krakauer for the summit climb in order to write an article about the experience.  The disaster, totally unknown to me at the time, refers to that summit climb on May 10 in which eight people died during descent.  Krakauer’s team alone lost four people; two out of the three guides perished as well as two clients.

This work was not simply about the deaths, but about the whole journey as well as the history of climbing on the mountain itself.  Krakauer takes an obviously journalistic approach to recounting the stop in a nearby village, seeing the resident lama, and then the onward journey to Sagarmatha (the Napalese name for Everest) and the boastful highest peak of hers measuring in at 29035 ft (8848 meters).  There are many flavors of the area introduced to us, how seemingly auspicious it was to be called directly to a meeting with the lama prior to the climb, as well as the friendliness of the people and the determination and competition involved in being a sherpa.

Unfortunately, where this could have been expounded upon well Krakauer can’t seem to get passed himself.  Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of piousness and “poor me” attitude prevalent through out:

Trust in one’s partners is a luxury denied those who sign on as clients on a guided ascent; one must put one’s faith in the guide instead.

(This is absurd to me on many levels, the first of which is that it doesn’t address the luxury of having someone take care of so much for you including that guide who usually charges $65k a person.)

It can’t be stressed strongly enough, moreover, that Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired with hypoxia (high altitude sickness).

[When making a climb of this nature it is not a matter of force to make decisions under such conditions, but rather something that should be expected.  A given, as it were.]

Then there’s the matter of his absurd attempts at mathematical justification of how the summer wasn’t that bad:

Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp – which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent.  Or here’s another way to look at it: between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times-a ratio of one in four.  Last spring, 12 climbers died and 84 reached the summit-a radio of one in seven.  Compared to these historical standards, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year. [p. 274]  ** my notes:  Comparing decades, boiling them down to a ratio then comparing them to one year doesn’t work.  Measures have to be uniform for just comparison to be made.]

Still, my larger frustration with the work is the piousness with which Krakauer analyzes team mates and certain guides.  Anatoli Bookreev (a guide with Fischer’s group – another attempting to summit the same time Hall’s team was) climbed without oxygen and did not pander to the clients – this was a source of contention with Krakauer, just as another client getting (perhaps demanding) help from a Sherpa to reach the summit that was beyond prudence was.  That same guide later saved lives because he got up to the summit, then back down expeditiously before the blizzard hit, rested, then went out when the storm was in full effect.  Krakauer, however, admits that he should have spoke to Andy Harris, explained that he was reading the Oxygen canisters wrong, instead of merely grabbing one then going on his way.  Harris would later be with Robert Hall, both of whom would die on the mountain.

At times this was an interesting read, but for me it was difficult to come away from this and not harbor some hostilities against Krakauer.  He’s constantly judging others, pointing a finger and stating what they’re doing wrong (his notions of wrong are notably not fixed), and when it comes to his own culpability he blows it off, diminishes them.  I will say, however, it raises some very good points.

First, I now really want to read The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev about the same event; second, when taking on an endeavor that risks your life it is, perhaps, in your best interest to minimize how much faith must be put in other people to secure something so precious.

Anyone else read this book?


Review: James and the Giant Peach

Dahl brings us one James Henry Trotter; a boy who had lived the wondrousness that is being a part of a loved family before his parents unfortunate demise.  I’m reasonably certain that if this tale were told today James would have been involved in a rather large lawsuit against the zoo that should have housed the rhinoceros that ate his parents far better.  One can hardly imagine the sensation of such a tragedy in one’s life as parents safely shopping in London only to wind up eaten.  Unfortunately for James his life only gets worse when he winds up stuck living with his two aunts:  Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.  They abuse him verbally, physically, then treat him as slave labor to boot.

Is it any wonder this poor woebegone boy would willingly take crocodile tongues from a stranger with the intent of drinking them?  He needed a pick me up and, rest assured, I would not have even supposed to have intervened in the exchange at this point.  It is with great sadness that I must then inform you he dropped those magic crystals and subsequently did not get his happy ending as promised him by his friendly crocodile tongue pusher.  However, something brilliant does happen!  Those tongues affected the nearby tree and formed a giant peach.  Not only does this peach become his own car, then boat, then plane, but it comes furnished with some of the most important amenities one needs in life:  friends.

Reading this work as an adult and not having my childhood reaction to fall back upon (never read this before) was somewhat difficult.  I have a great fondness for Dahl because of Witches and Matilda and so expected to feel similarly about this work.  I don’t, but this in no way the fault of the author.  While I have read some YA recently (at least some that would be construed as such) this is not that; it’s solidly a book for children.  This makes a tremendous difference on the expectation and the delivery.

Magic occurs to empower our young hero, his villains are vanquished, and a journey that proves the intelligence of the child over and over again winds up being a success on many levels.  While apparently people thought this book should be banned due to encouraging disobedience and drugs it seems as though they missed the mark.  This is a story that has been told and retold many times over the span of time; the movement from tragic figure to a hero.  We all need stories that demonstrate this possibility even if it is through supernatural means.  Optimism, at its root, is the belief that things can be better for ourselves, our world, and nowhere is this more important to coach than in children.  It is hope that drives us, moves us forward in a way that enables goodness in life.

While this will never have the same fondness for me the other Dahl works I mentioned do, this is certainly one to read, not only to your children, but for yourself.  [I’m thinking this is akin to Harry Potter.  Aunt Spiker even looks like Voldemort!  Well, without all the snaky stuff.]

Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Another one off that challenge list of mine!  Yahoo!  Okay, now I must confess.  I had never read this book before.  Yeah, I know it was published in 1962, won a Newberry Award and all that, still I never read it.  When I was younger I started to read it, I distinctly remember that, but I put it aside thinking it was weird.  This was the nature of my fastidiously real world child self.  Fantasy and sci-fi weren’t in my house and simply existed out of my experience.  As a child, when one feels “odd man out” on every possible level it’s hard to commit to something that only perpetuates and encourages that feeling of ostracism.  Strangely, I loved Matilda and Witches, though.  Their struggles of singularity were ones that gave me hope and in a setting I could more readily latch onto.  Enough of that. Here goes!

This well known classic in children’s literature is about a family without a father.  The main character would be an adolescent girl named Meg who suffers bullying (one who fights back, though – yeah!) and no small degree of humiliation as people talk of her behavioral issues, a lack of interest in doing school work, a father who is gone, and a brother who is viewed as weird because he doesn’t talk.  She is adrift in a sea of people who condemn and can occasionally find respite when she lands on an island filled with the support of family.  All except her father.

A friend introduces himself to her and her brother, Charles Wallace (the young and gifted one who doesn’t speak to strangers), and thus begins their journey into space to find Meg and Charles’ father with the aid of three lovely looks- to – be – humans – who – aren’t- really-humans.  They travel with the aid of what can only be described as magic.   They move from world to world, one is two dimensional, the other is beauty incarnate with merely a view of evil from the highest peak, and another is owned and operated by evil itself.  This is the one which is imprisoning the beloved family member who has long been missing.

Calvin, the friend, Charles Wallace, and Meg journey together into a world which everyone is the same.  There are no flaws, all bounce the ball to the same rhythm, intruders must have identification to show they’re supposed to be there, and when there is an issue it is to be corrected via IT.  This is essentially reprogramming, the spirit of a person gone, and it can be warranted due to something as simple as a child not bouncing a ball correctly.  It’s a world where conformity is the necessity and individuality is the highest crime.

Take this excerpt where Charles Wallace has been taken over by IT:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she (Meg) shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain.  Then she realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz.  Complete equality.  Everybody exactly alike.”

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion.  Then came a moment of blazing truth,  “No!” she cried triumphantly.  “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”

What amazes me about the work is how insightful the author is to make a distinction few people understand or even see the relevance of.  This book, in conjunction with others on the banned list, has opened up my eyes greatly.  For grade school children (fourth grades and up) I can think of few works more important to share with them.  Support for the individual, for their differences, the sense of community still found and supported for them, as well as the potential for amazing and wondrous things they can impact is all there.   What better messages can we hope to impart?

There will be a post coming up shortly about the observations I have about commonalities amongst the banned books that were written for children.

Review: The Chocolate War

When I considered the title “The Chocolate War” while scanning the list of banned books to decide what would get tackled next, I never for a minute considered “war” to be meant in the gravest of senses.  When paired with something as lovely as chocolate how could one ever consider this to be a devastating book, an earth shaking testimony to the plight of the individual?  Should you go out and read this book after the review then you can at least go forth with the knowledge that I warned you.

The premise is simple, a freshman at Trinity High School (Catholic, private, all boys’ school) refuses to take part in the “voluntary” sale of chocolates that is the school’s traditional fundraiser.  Each day he is asked how many boxes of chocolate he will take to sell and every day he responds with “none”.  A secret society within the school, The Vigils, are called in to help when sales start waning;  the investment of the group operating outside the rule of the school, but with its knowledge, becomes intense as do its actions to maintain the fear of the student body.

Jerry Renault is the main character and the only one who will say “no” to the intimidation of the school and The Vigils.  Let me say that again:  He is the only one who says no.  There is no fuss about this on his part, no massive speeches or statements he’s putting forth other than his individual right to simply not take part in what is purported to be a voluntary activity.  Then he said no to the bullies who told him to say yes.  When he was jumped by a gang and beaten bloody, he still said no.  When the phone calls came in the middle of the night, that no stayed upon his lips in his firm and quiet voice.  His “no” made him a pariah and then a victim of the herd of people who did not have the courage to do so for themselves, who felt Jerry saying no was a smear against them, that he was holding himself superior.

The revelation Jerry experiences at the end had me wanting to cry and scream my frustrations to the world, “How dare you diminish the individual; how dare the horde, the animals, declare themselves master, punisher, and arbiter of  their disease ridden justice upon a person!”  Alas, it’s a scream I feel all too frequently and will dedicate an entire post to at a later time.  [Maybe.]

Take this excerpt from a classroom lesson given by Brother Leon, the man behind The Vigils’ investment in the chocolate sale:

“Well, Bailey?” From Leon at the window, still intent on the world outside.

“I don’t cheat, Brother Leon,” Bailey said, a surge of strength in his voice, like he was taking a last stand.

“Then how do you account for all those A’s?”

“I don’t know.”

Brother Leon whirled around.  “Are you perfect, Baily?  All those A’s- that implies perfection.  Is that the answer, Bailey?”

For the first time, Bailey looked at the class itself, in mute appeal, like something wounded, lost abandoned.

“Only God is perfect, Bailey.”

Jerry’s neck began to hurt.  And his lungs burned.  He realized he’d been holding his breath.  He gulped air, carefully, not wanting to move a muscle.  He wished he was invisible.  He wished he wasn’t here in the classroom.  He wanted to be out on the football field, fading back, looking for a receiver.

“Do you compare yourself with God, Bailey?”

Cut it out, Brother, cut it out, Jerry cried silently.

“If God is perfect and you are perfect, Bailey, does that suggest something to you?”

Bailey didn’t answer, eyes wide in disbelief.  The class was utterly silent.  Jerry could hear the hum of the electric clock0he’d never realized before that electric clocks hummed.

“The other alternative, Bailey is that you are not perfect  And, of course, you’re not.”  Leon’s voice softened.  “I know you wouldn’t consider anything so sacrilegious.”

“That’s right, Brother Leon,” Bailey said, relieved.

“Which leaves us with only one conclusion,” Leon said, his voice bright and triumphant, as if he had made an important discovery.  “You cheat!”

All the above dialogue, the false accusations led to this lesson:

“You poor fools,” he [Brother Leon] said.  “You idiots.  Do you know who’s the best one here?  The bravest of all?”  He placed his hand on Bailey’s shoulder.  “Gregory Bailey, that’s who.  He denied cheating.  He stood up to my accusations.  He stood his ground!  But you, gentlemen, you sat there and enjoyed yourselves.  And those of you who didn’t enjoy yourselves allowed it to happen, allowed me to proceed.  You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments.”

The lessons are hard hitting and close to home as we look upon our society today and forever see the defense and stalwart championing of the collective, while the outliers are viewed as necessary and sometimes trivial collateral damage.  This book demonstrates it all, a parable that, along side The Giver, is absolutely vital for people to read.  Its placement on the list of most frequently challenged books is of no surprise to me given how conformity is used for the measure of good so often in our culture (or at least NOT conforming being viewed as a bad thing worthy of vitriol and resentment); that it is on the list is again a testament to something far more malevolent than simply a concern over the numerous mentions of masturbation by adolescent males within the pages.  One can not expect children to appreciate diversity in people unless attention to the individual and all the differences that might include is given.  That Cormier managed such a fete in the pages of his work is to be commended; a grave reminder that it matters not only what a person looks like as to how they are categorized, but all too often it is simply because they choose something different.