Friday, January 29, 2010

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld


It is 1914. The Archduke Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated. Europe is splitting apart. The world is on the brink of war. Soaring in the sky above is a flying whale. Huh?


That’s right, a flying whale. Is there a problem with that? Don’t tell me you missed the flying whale part in eighth grade social studies? (Actually, given the dreadful state of social studies in our schools, chances are you missed everything.) Welcome to Scott Westerfeld’s wonderful “alternative history” of World War I, Leviathan. Rather than simply Great Britain vs. Germany, it is the Clankers vs. the Darwinists. The British are the Darwinists whose technology and weapons are based on creating hybrid animals, hence the flying whale. Or how about a flying jellyfish or squadrons of bats to bring down enemy planes? The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians are the Clankers, whose technology and weapons of war are machines. This is not just a war of politics; it is a war of technological ideology. Welcome to steampunk, the genre that is a hybrid itself, with an enthralling mix of past and future and fantasy, where machines – made of iron or made of flesh -- are as important as the people.

For much of this book (the first in a trilogy), there are two stories, slowly moving (literally) toward each other. The more interesting story is about Deryn Sharp, a girl who dreams of being an airman for Great Britain. The problem, of course, is that England did not take too kindly to the notion of airwomen. So Deryn pretends to be a boy, takes to the sky, and her adventure begins. Meanwhile, Alek , the son of the just-assassinated Archduke, is on the run. The heir to the throne, some in his own country have turned against him because his father did the dishonor of marrying a commoner. (As Westerfeld points out in an important Afterward, this is true to history.) Alek, along with some of his father’s trusted aids – and being a Clanker -- is stomping through the countryside in a giant armed Stormwalker. Give an army tank legs and you get the idea.

This is all tremendous fun. In many ways, Leviathan is an amazing work of imagination. I loved the science of the fabricated animals and the steampunk combination of history and fantasy. The idea of making Darwinian science a vital element of the story makes for an exciting and current read. The illustrations throughout the book by Keith Thompson (and the fabulous image on the endpapers) are an extra bonus.

As much as I enjoyed this book and look forward to the next one, there is something missing. It took me most of the book to realize what it is. Clearly, Westerfeld wrote this as a young adult novel. Yet, there is really nothing “young adult“ about it. Sure, World War I is a topic usually more suited for older readers, but while some of that history is wonderfully interwoven throughout Leviathan, it is done so in a way that will stop no one from turning the pages. Given this, there is absolutely nothing that should keep this book off the shelves (or out of the hands) of many younger readers. While that is certainly a good thing for them, the older readers pay the price. For a young adult novel, the book reads easy – too easy – and the characters lack depth. For a story about war, it is amazingly bloodless, to the point of being downright harmless.

Still, Leviathan is a great success of the imagination and an absolutely wonderful way to weave a bit of history into the lives of kids (and adults). It’s a fascinating combination of history and science and a great introduction (or addition) to steampunk. While it may be a weakness for older readers, the book makes all of this accessible to younger readers, hungry to stomp and fly their way through Europe, immersed in wars of politics and economic class and technology.

Review copy received from the publisher.

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The Funeral Director's Son by Coleen Murtagh Paratore



Kip Campbell doesn't see dead people -- he just hears them. They share their final wishes with him, and he then helps them (sometimes reluctantly) complete unfinished business. Kip's story begins in The Funeral Director's Son and continues in Kip Campbell's Gift, both of which are suitable for upper elementary and middle school readers.

Being the son of a funeral director has given Kip plenty of grief - no pun intended. When the series begins, he has yet to share his gift with his family members or his friends, preferring to help the dead in his own quiet way. While listening to the requests of the dead and the concerns of their loved ones, Kip learns that there's more to people than meets the eye. More than once, his opinion of a person changes for the better after he reaches out to them. In the first book, he befriends an eccentric elderly woman while helping an angry old fisherman move on; in the second, he attempts to appease a recently deceased mother by passing along messages to her son - who just so happens to be the classmate that bullies Kip on a regular basis.

The living characters in the series are quite lively. Kip's house is filled with activity, thanks to the many relatives who live there. Campbell and Sons Funeral Home is truly a family business. Kip's father is the sixth in a line of Campbells to run the business, but Kip isn't sure if he wants to be the seventh. Kip's older sister, Elizabeth, annoys him; he prefers to call her Lizbreath. Kip's younger sister, Chick, spreads infectious giggles and smiley face stickers. Kip's mother is the office manager. Uncle Marty is the embalmer, and when he's done, Aunt Sally does makeup and hair. Living up at the top of the house are Great Aunt Aggie, the resident musician, even though she herself has taken ill lately, and Nanbull, Kip's grandmother and close confidante, who writes the obituaries and creates the funeral programs. Kip makes sure the outside of the house is suitable for viewings, raking the leaves (which Chick loves jumping in) and handling other exterior tasks. Lizbreath arranges the flowers, and Kip's mom provides those left behind a beautiful plant. Kip's circle of support extends well beyond his front door: He has three best buds, all male, who share meatball subs and meet after school in their clubhouse, aka Guts, an abandoned groundskeeper's cottage in a cemetery. Meanwhile, Kip develops a crush on the new girl in town, Drew, the daughter of the new harbormaster.

Stories about assisting the dead can go any number of routes, any number of ways, to varying degrees of success. Some are in the horror vein, while others are lighter and comedic. Coleen Murtagh Paratore has made The Funeral Director's Son line more thoughtful, without any horror movie elements, without any disrespect for the dead. The second book was a little more spiritual than expected, but, then again, perhaps that is to be expected when one contemplates death or existence.

Fans of Paratore's series From The Life of Willa Havisham, aka The Wedding Planner's Daughter, will appreciate the little tie-ins between the two series. Perhaps there will be a future crossover...? (Though that would bring something slightly supernatural into Willa's otherwise wholly realistic world, and I don't think I want that.) Though the plots and themes of the two series differ, Paratore begins each chapter of the Kip novels and the Willa novels with a quote, typically a wise proverb or a poetic line or stanza, providing even more food for thought.

If you prefer Ghost Whisperer to The Sixth Sense and you're looking for a series with a male protagonist in middle school, then give The Funeral Director's Son a try.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Artemis Fowl, graphically depicted

I am not the biggest fan of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl. It's not that I don't think the world he created is awesome - actually I love the idea of Haven and Recon and Holly in particular. She's such a kick butt fairy that she really appealed to me. I also liked that even though Artemis is supposed to be Mr. Evil Genius she wasn't impressed and still found a way around him. Of course Artemis found another way around her but of course he had to for the sequel! ha!

I do get though that it was a fine story and I could see the appeal and although I really thought Artemis was too insufferable to live, as a summer time read, yeah, I could see it. I didn't read the sequels though and didn't think much about Fowl's continuing adventures. Then I received Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel in the mail and gave it a quick look, then a long look, and realized what was missing from the novel. Artemis needs illustrations and now he has them and this version of the story really really rocks.

Colfer has assistance adapting to the new form from Andrew Donkin and the art is by Giovanni Rigano. The story is still basically the same but don't you want to see what Artemis looks like? And Holly and Captain Short and Butler? Don't you want to see Haven and even better, don't you want to see Fowl Manor? All in glorious and glossy color, the whole story is here. The drawing is crisp, the facial expressions are fantastic, (Mrs. Fowl in particular is rendered well) and while I certainly enjoy getting inside a character's mind, Artemis is the kind of guy that is just flat fun to watch.

The troll is pretty cool too.

Artemis fans who are waiting the sequels should go for the graphic novels to supplement their reading. (The second one is out as well.) You get the high quality action plot you expect and you get to see it all unfold. First class all the way and in my mind a stroke of pure genius from Colfer and co.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Story for the Fool in All of Us - Cugel's Saga

Okay, an admission: Jack Vance shares a birthday with me. I'd like to think he wrote Cugel's Saga as a sort of present for me back in 1983.

Cugel's Saga is really more a mosaic novel than a traditional epic fantasy. The hero may refer to himself as Cugel the Clever but he is really anything but. As he tries to return home and avenge the wrongs he believes committed against him by Iucounu, the Laughing Magician, Cugel finds himself forced to work a variety of menial and demeaning jobs. One of which, wormhandler, is far worse than anything the 21st century fast food industry could force on a guy--well, except if that urban legend about McDonald's using ground-up worms in their shake recipes is true... no, no, Cugel hanging off the side of ship to clean the gills of massive marine worms is pretty awful.

My fondness for Cugel is reminiscent of my love for Daffy Duck. Both are greedy bastards, and both never get to keep their winnings, being constantly outsmarted by luckier thieves and trickster figures. But Cugel, like Daffy, never tires in his pursuit of fortune and fame (and the occasional female). And we can never ever stop cheering for them.

The Dying Earth fantasy world that Vance has created is one bizarre realm. Magic is complicated and messy and usually results in the downfall of anyone who tries to master it. Spells have long, convoluted names. Weird creatures exist. Vance adores language and reading any of the books in this series (The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, and Rhialto the Marvellous - but don't worry, there's no real need to read them in order) will do more for your vocabulary than a pesky English teacher could demand. This is Tolkein 36 hrs after dropping acid and nursing a weird hangover.

Cugel's Saga
may be hard to find... unless you happen to know about this thing called the Internet. Then you could search and find any number of editions. I happen to own a hardcover book club edition--and if Jack Vance happens to read this blog entry, would you mind signing my present?

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Go.

Just go and read this book now. It's amazing, awesome, inspiring, and I can go on with the adjectives if you want me to, but I'll stop for now.

Then give it to socially conscious teens. Give it to teens who like to build things or take them apart. Give it to any teen you can. And give it to adults too, because we can be cynical and pessimistic and weary.

For those of you who need to know more about the book first, it’s about a young man in Africa who

  1. survives a famine;
  2. is forced to drop out of school because his family can't afford the fees;
  3. finds some science textbooks in a library;
  4. decides to build a windmill to provide electricity for his family, with a dream of a putting together a water pump for their well, to irrigate their garden and maize crop;
  5. succeeds, using, among other things, bicycle parts and a drill made from a nail and a maize cob; and
  6. receives worldwide attention as word about his windmills spreads.
This is the kind of story that, in a novel, would seem implausible. Too good to be true. Except William Kamkwamba actually did all of this.



Part of what makes The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity & Hope so good (other than the basics outlined above, which would be incredible enough on its own) is that, other than the two page long prologue, more than half the book goes by before we get to the windmills. So don't expect to be thrust into the windmill quest right away. Instead, William, with co-writer Bryan Mealer, utilizes a conversational, personable style to tell us about his life, with the windmills treated as just one part of it. William says that his father is "a born storyteller, largely because his own life had been like one fantastic tale" (p. 23). He must have inherited his father's talent (well, this and Mealer did a really good job), because the book hums with the rhythms of oral storytelling and reads as if William were sitting with you, telling you about himself.

And so we learn about his family, his childhood, and the horrific famine that struck Malawi in 2000. How, despite having to drop out of school, William began borrowing books from the library to try to keep up with with what his former classmates were learning and then found the book that would change his life. But as in any quest worth reading about, there were challenges to overcome, and knowing that William ultimately succeeded does not make reading about them any less satisfying.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Bond, Young James Bond: Silverfin, by Charlie Higson


Origin stories just seem to capture our imaginations, don't they? Who doesn't want to see the very moment when someone starts on the road to awesomeness, when Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, when Indiana Jones gets that famous hat, when Luke Skywalker decides he'll be a Jedi Knight like his father? We love to see those moments when someone takes that first step on the path to greatness.

The trouble with origin stories is that there are many more steps after that, boring ones while we learn our gifts, find our path, take false turns, and blunder into who we are. Nobody struck Abraham Lincoln with lightning to give him his great moral sense, and Mozart's father all but abused him to cultivate that "inborn" talent for music. George Patton didn't crawl from the womb with his pearl-handled revolvers, and Stephen King's first story sure wasn't "The Body." Real people grow slowly, and--though it isn't as quick--that growth can be just as fun to watch as a sudden transformation.

And so it is with the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson, starting with the novel Silverfin.

In this novel, we're introduced to a teenaged James Bond starting school at Eton. There, we see the beginnings of his life of adventure: a boyish curiosity, a strength of moral character, an interest in other cultures, a cleverness for escaping trouble he can't fight, a determination to win. In this book, he drives his first Aston Martin (and not immediately well, I might add). He learns about his uncle's brief career as a spy and wonders if that might be something he might try one day. He foils his first conspiracy to change the politics of the world, too--sneaking into a fortified castle and swimming through a loch infested with man-eating eels.

Oh, and he introduces himself to a schoolmaster as, "Bond. James Bond."

It's worth saying that there has always been a large gap between the written James Bond and the one we've seen on the screen: Ian Fleming's excellent novels and stories are far more intelligent than the corny, heavy-handed movies made from the Sixties to the Nineties about his character. These books continue the written tradition of a thoughtful James Bond, someone more likely to outplay an enemy at cards than punch him in the face.

Higson, too, resists the temptation to clobber us over the head with James's future. Here, he's showing Bond's first steps. This is James Bond without his guns, without his fists, without his gadgets, without his women, without his shaken martinis...and he's all the more awesome with just his brains and determination. James Bond has to solve the mystery of SilverFin without the British government at his back, without any real legal authority. He makes new friends to help him, and he keeps his wits when the rest of us might well run slinking away.

This is the book when James Bond starts--ever slowly, ever subtly--becoming James Bond. It's fun to watch; it helps us all to remember during our worst days that James Bond was a kid once, too. He became great slowly, just like we can.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Books to look forward to (and one I didn't like)

Wow. It feels like it's been forever since I posted on GLW. I mean, I did miss December, but that was because the book I planned to review ended up being completely *meh*.


The book, Blood Ninja by Nick Lake, just didn't live up to expectations. I mean, ninjas and vampires, what could be bad about that, right? Only, in the book, the ninjas are vampires, see. That's what makes them, um, ninja-awesome, I suppose. Again, meh. That seems to me to be a perfect formula for making ninja boring. Like Batman, they are cool because they are normal people, without special powers, except training, training, awesomeness, gadgets, and training.

Let me say this-- it may not have been the book's fault. Nick Drake does a great job with the research and he brings to life the era of Samurai and Ninja almost as good as Stan Sakai (more on him later). But I was expecting Ninja vs. Vampire. That's cool.

I mean, come on, folks, aren't we over vampires yet? Can't we find our way back to some kind of unexpected cool that doesn't involve sensing the blood pulse in the neck of a best mate/potential girlfriend?

I'm so glad, then, for 2010, when we look to the future, and a slew of great looking books chock-full of the offbeat, the new, and even some old school stories brought back to life. After the break, great books to look forward to...


So, what to look forward to? These are books I've seen bits and pieces of, or advanced copies of, or have just gotten enough of a lick to really, really want more:

I mentioned Stan Sakai earlier. He's a master cartoonist, often overlooked because he does two things that have fallen by the wayside here in the states: historical adventure and funny animal. Usagi Yojimbo is a ronin rabbit, wandering Japan, falling into one adventure after another, some big, some small. Sakai has written and drawn over twenty volumes of this noble warrior, and every time a new one comes out, I rush to pick it up (it also comes out as a comic pamphlet, but I "wait for the trades," as they say in the comic book biz). If you've never read any Usagi, there's two great ways to dive in. The first is a $14.95 hardcover, stand-alone story from Dark Horse Comics called Yokai, in which Usagi fights all kinds of demons and goblins of Japanese folklore. That came out last month. If you're more ambitious, save up your dough, because for $85, Fantagraphics, publisher of the first seven volumes of the comic, is issuing a deluxe, two-volume complete edition of everything Usagi that they ever published, including long out of print stories, interviews, and more.

Speaking of historical adventure, Crogan's March, Chris Schweizer's next book in his swashbuckling adventure series of graphic novels, comes out later this year. It's about a Legionnaire from the annals of the legendary Crogan family, and Schweizer one-ups his earlier Pirate adventure (Crogan's Vengeance) with a combination of pulpy military adventure, The Dirty Dozen, and The Odyssey.

I'm also looking forward to books without pictures as well. One of my absolute, knock-out recent reads is an advanced copy I got of Adam Rex's next book. If you know Adam Rex, from his picture books, or his chapter book The True Meaning of Smekday, then you know how hysterical he is. And that's why I picked up Fat Vampire without hesitation. Yes, I know I began this essay by bemoaning vampires. But when it's about a kid who realizes that he's going to be fifteen, fat, and unpopular for the rest of eternity? And the book opens with a scene at San Diego Comic-Con? How can you not love it?

Finally, I think what I'm looking forward to the most this coming year is David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. It's the transcripts of interviews, two hundred pages worth, Lipsky did with author David Foster Wallace back when he was on tour fifteen years ago for his book Infinite Jest. As tragic as his death was (Wallace committed suicide a year and a half ago after losing a battle with depression), Wallace's mind was absolutely fierce. And as brilliant a fiction writer as he was, I think his non-fiction work will stand the test of time. This, his thoughts unfiltered? I'm hoping to dive again into the mind of someone I admired and loved so much.

What books are you looking forward to this year?

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Understanding Comics and Making Comics by Scott McCloud

This past year, I re-discovered comic books. I've written before how comics didn't just teach me to read, they taught me to read well. But I drifted away from comics in the late nineties. Pandering to an overblown speculation bubble (3 glow-in-the-dark variant covers for every issue!) and the urge to make every title grim and gritty and X-TREME!! had bankrupted companies--first creatively, then financially.

When I returned a decade later, I found an industry and fan base that had grown smaller but also more eager and open to discovery. Once-fringe writers like Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison had taken over flagship titles. Quieter, indie stuff like Craig Thompson's wonderful Blankets was finding its place among the caped heroes.

Excited by this new comics landscape and wanting to learn more about it, I picked up cartoonist Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

Drawing from both literary theory and aesthetics, McCloud explores the psychology at work underneath the comics page, what he calls the "invisible art." He shows how the crispness of a line or the use of color changes a reader's perception of an image. And how the space between two panels forces us to mentally "fill in the gap," imagining how one scene transitions into the next, creating a kind of audience participation that film doesn't. Explaining the way people identify more with simplified figures (because we tend to project our own self-image onto them) than highly detailed ones (which we see clear as an "other"), he shows how this has been used to great effect in comics. Art Spigelman's Holocaust story Maus wasn't emotionally-wrenching despite the characters being Disney-esque mice and cats but because of it. In manga, often in the same story, some characters will are drawn simply and others with more detail, depending on whether the reader is meant to identify with that character or not. (Several times, McCloud points to Japanese manga as the future of comics. Considering he published Understanding Comics in 1993, when manga was just edging into the American consciousness, this seems incredibly prescient.)

All these heavy ideas should be as dry as burnt toast. Maybe even more impressive than the theories, though, is the breezy way Understanding Comics presents them. Drawn completely in comics format and narrated by McCloud's smiling alter-ego, this is literary theory meant for everyone.

Also, for people wanting to create their own comics, I recommend McCloud's follow up, Making Comics. This isn't the normal "how to draw" guide with lessons on figure drawing and crosshatching. Instead, this is more about the mechanics of telling stories through images: How to make panels flow easily across the page, how a character's posture communicates his personality or internal mood. Like Understanding Comics, the brilliance in Making Comics is the way McCloud reduces complex ideas into a few simple principles and clever illustrations.

Despite the industry's problems back in the nineties, the stories stuck with me. I couldn't shake them, no matter how many "real" books I read, and I finally found my way back. In a similar way, the industry survived its own excesses because there are some stories you can only tell through comics. In his accessible style, McCloud reveals this "invisible art" and makes me appreciate it even more.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar


If you saw the Sherlock Holmes movie, you may have wanted to try reading the original stories. Be my guest. You rarely run into one who regrets having read a Sherlock Holmes story (except perhaps, The Red-Headed League).

But if you'd like to read something a little edgier but still Holmesish, try Arsene Lupin.

The Lupin stories, begun in 1905, were France's answer to England's great detective. Lupin's also smart, clever, one-step-ahead and ready for anything ... but he's working the other side of the game. He's a master criminal.

How good is he? Well, he picks Sherlock Holmes' pocket in his first (apparently unauthorized)encounter with the detective.

The author, Maurice Leblanc, wrote many stories about Lupin. Start with "The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar."

I'm currently reading*, "The Blonde Lady," which is billed as the big title fight between Lupin and Holmes. (Although, Leblanc sometimes had to change Holmes' name, because of Arthur Conan Doyle's very understandable disapproval.)

Lupin's a fascinating character, as interested in getting his name in the papers as in grabbing the dough. And he's clever. He's way ahead of the police -- and the reader.
Some of the stories are better than others, but believe me when Lupin's game is afoot you're going to get blind-sided by some amazing plot twists.

*Actually, I'm listening to a free audiobook version from Librivox.org


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Of Road Trips, Kick Offs, and Thoughts on the Trail

Greetings, Lit-wirians! Mark London Williams here, joining the fray at Guys Lit Wire. I'll be here every third Tuesday over the next so many moons, and beyond.

I'm using my full moniker as my posting name, too, just to eliminate any confusion Lit-wise, or Wired-wise, since it's the same me who wrote the Danger Boy books (a series that straddled mid-grade and YA, as the characters grew older), and currently writes other columns and fulminations on and offline, concerning books, comics, politics, movie-making, and more.

So no sense pretending it's not also the same me in my own little corner (why am I suddenly referencing the musical version of "Cinderella!?") here on GLW, where I join a crew that is sharp, smart, far more caught up on their reading than I am (writing, it seems, slows that whole process down), and can doubtless teach me Many Things.

I'll be writing about books old and new here, including some of the ones that prompted my own journey to "authorship." Some of the "discussees" will be graphic novels, since I've been lucky enough to write the sporadic comic, and am currently a fairly regular reviewer of same, too.

So, let's have the fun begin, shall we?

We start, though, not with a straight out review but a dispatch from the road. (Not that we want to fill our GLW perch with such things -- this should be different from a regular "author's blog," yes?) Nonetheless, there I was, at the recent YAllapalooza gathering, a kind of in-store gathering/hoedown/happening pitting L.A.-based writers against their Arizona counterparts, all overseen by the wonderful Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix (well, yes, Tempe, on the outskirts of Phoenix, but in the West, cities tend to sprawl all over the place).

Four of us drove down from L.A. together -- me, keeping an eye out for available date shakes along the desert stretches of the I-10, with Carol Snow (YA tomes Switch and Snap), Cecil Castellucci (Beige, Boy Proof, and the terrific graphic novel The Plain Janes), and Blake Nelson, whose own Destroy All Cars received well-earned praise on this very blog.

We got there a day ahead of the event, and divvied up into a girls room and a boys room at our motel-- Cecil and Carol in one, Blake and me down the hall.

Would the "boy book" room be different than the "girl book" room, I wondered? I mean, in obvious ways? (Would it, in fact, be messier?) After all, we were all just writers-on-a-field-trip. But is there a sensibility that makes a guy-friendly story different from a gal-friendly one?

I mean, Hunger Games (mentioned in the post below) has a female lead, and that's a terrific read for anyone, so that's not the answer.

But I kept mulling the question as Blake and I wound up --stereotypically? -- discussing whether we'd be able to watch any of the NFL playoffs on room TV (our schedule didn't really allow it). I don't actually watch a ton of sports (I listen to baseball often, though, while writing), because it's so relentlessly commercialized, but often interesting "stories" develop as seasons wind down and post-seasons unfold, and the Jets/Bengals game, in particular, looked interesting.

But why was it interesting? Well, I thought, it's because at this point in the season, you don't really know what's going to happen next. The ending is unwritten (see the recent Jets/Chargers game) and somewhat unpredictable, and maybe, for boys, for men -- whose lives often do become predictable (in school, at jobs) -- these encounters with unscripted sporting events provided a tiny bit -- just a smidgen-- of adventure.

We all need adventures, of course -- the exhilaration (and sometimes fear)of the unknown, along with the comforts of the familiar.

So maybe the appeal of sports is that you can't say, with certainty, what's going to happen next.

Of course, we're living in a world like that, but maybe that's too overwhelming. But: do guys seem to respond to types of "uncertainty" -- manifested in thrillers and fast-paced stories , on the book side-- any more than gals do? If so, are they conditioned to, or wired to?

And why does it seem harder to get guys to stop whatever they're doing and sit down and read a book? (Hence the good works here).

There are no "set" answers to these questions, of course. Which is good -- that becomes another thing to explore.

And on the road, away from my own usual routines, I had a little more time to bask in them.

As for the explorations, I look forward to doing much more of that here, with you, in the months ahead.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Salt by Maurice Gee

"You are chosen to serve Company in its glorious enterprise.
Daily we grow in comfort and prosperity.
In this you share.
Who serves Company serves mankind.
Raise your voices now and give thanks."

Hari and Pearl's lives are ruled by Company, but in completely different ways. In Salt by Maurice Gee, Hari and Pearl might as well live in different worlds.

For Hari and his father, Tarl, every day is a struggle for survival. They live hungry among deadly rats and packs of desperate dogs. When the Company comes the people of Blood Burrow are dragged away and forced to work as slaves. The lucky ones end up at sea, in farms or in factories. The others, however, are sent to Salt or to Deep Salt where no one returns. When Tarl is seized and sent to Deep Salt, Hari vows to break him out.

Pearl lives under Company control, but she is not Company. Among the daily routine of gowns, makeup and royal parties she has been taught about real life from her lifelong maid, Tealeaf. When Pearl flees her arranged marriage, she enters the dangerous life of being relentlessly pursued by Company.

The violence of Company brings Pearl and Hari together as they discover they both share powers they need to learn to control. This fantasy strikes me as a grittier version of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and I enjoyed it greatly. Gee has created a really interesting fantasy world where dictators and rebels struggle for control. Fans of Hunger Games and Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley will enjoy this novel.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Borderline

You can't get away from the truth. That can be scary. Sometimes, you have no idea what the truth is. That is even scarier. In Borderline, Printz-Honor winning author Allan Stratton spotlights a story that reads like it might have sprung straight from today's news. It's scary, but not in the ways you might expect - and that's what makes it worth reading.

Sami Sabiri is pretty much used to being the only Muslim kid at his school. It hasn't ever been easy, and there are still kids who bully and abuse him for his different faith, but he copes with it, trying to fly low on the radar. Attention is exactly what Sami gets when out of the blue, the FBI raids his home, taking his father into custody under suspicion of involvement in an international terror plot. To make things even worse, Sami has been feeling suspicious about his dad's behaviour for a while. Suddenly all that Sami once believed in is shaken. Truth seems completely unreachable.
Borderline is a thought-provoking book that will make you consider the human story behind those headlines we've all read about terrorism and terror plots and wrongful accusation. It will make you wonder to what degree your thinking and your perspectives have been skewed or influenced by stories in the news, even if you try to stay open and not stereotype or jump to conclusions. I thought it was a clever angle for Stratton to have Sami questioning his knowledge of his father, just as the larger community in the story (and readers) wonder about his guilt or innocence and form ideas right from the moment he is accused. The public has doubts. We aren't sure. Sami is uncertain. It's not just the people on the outside who are suspicious. I like how Stratton introduces readers to complex and current issues, in a subtle and accessible way, without making it seem didactic or like he's just trying to grab onto something of the moment. Borderline is a tightly written, suspenseful family drama, about identity, prejudice, and the media's influence on the way we perceive and judge others. Perfect for news junkies, and social justice activists in training.

Borderline is published by Harper Trophy Canada. It is set to be released in early 2010. (February / March-ish... looks like!)



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Thursday, January 14, 2010

How NOT to Learn to Sail


I've reviewed some nonfiction by Gary Paulsen here in the past, and thought I'd try one of his novels this month. But I ran out of time. I meant to read Harris and Me. It got wonderful reviews, and I know I'm going to like it when I do get to it. In the meantime I'll review his nonfiction, Caught by the Sea: My Life on Boats.

It's a short book - 103 small pages, and the subtitle is somewhat misleading. Paulsen doesn't really give us the full story of his life on boats. He tells how he bought his first sailboat and taught himself to sail, and a little about other boats he's had, trips he's taken.

"...learn to sail.
No problem...
How hard could it be?...

... by the end of the first day I had still not left the harbor and was tied up to the courtesy dock... True, the trip had been a series of calamities punctuated by terror, and I had only come a total of about three hundred yards from my home dock.

But still, I had traveled, and I was in a different place and had gotten there by sailing..."

That's from the chapter, "First Boat." In "Lost at Sea" Paulsen writes, "But it was never really dangerous. I was never at risk except from my own idiocy. It's true you can drown in a cup of water, but you really have to work at it, and the same thing was true of my experience. Looking at it one way, I was working at destroying myself, and the boat worked equally hard at saving me. Had I done nothing but crawled down inside the boat and sucked my thumb -- which had occurred to me -- I would probably have survived just fine."

Actually it was dangerous sometimes: "The wind hit the boat with a demonic shriek, screaming, roaring, driving spray into my eyes and blinding me. I felt the boat go over on her beam and slide sideways. I was thrown off the boat, hanging in my lifeline and harness on the down side, dangling across the deck and in the water, disoriented, upside down, then right side up, the wind a wild howling filling my ears, my mind, my soul, and with the sudden onslaught of wind came the waves.

They were true monsters, steepsided, galloping, twenty, thirty feet high, almost vertical walls with breaking tops that caught the boat and held her down on her side with me in the water, clawing to get back on, ripping my nails, cutting my hands, now fighting to live, not obey the call of the sea, nothing noble or high-flown now but just to live, get on the boat and live. Even while I fought I remembered the tales of boats found sailing on their own with their owners...hanging off the stern dead in their harnesses because they couldn't get back on the boat before hyperthermia stopped their ability to function and they drowned."

The book is too short. I liked it, but I wanted more. Paulsen kind of leaves you hanging at the end - "That night I decided: Someday I would try the one great passage of the sailor's world. Someday I would try to sail around Cape Horn."

Fine. I'd read it that story too.


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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

So, you've got a camera...


Perhaps you received a camera recently as a gift and its a fun toy but you're wondering what you can really do with it besides taking the obvious snapshots of friends, family, and your pets for posting online. Or maybe you've had your camera for a while and have sort of run out of ideas for what to do with those pictures. While there are plenty of books and websites that will tell you how to manipulate your digital photos with various software programs, or how to improve your picture taking with new angles and special gear, all you really need is a fresh, playful approach to rethinking what you can do with what you already have.

What you want is photojojo!: insanely great proto projects and DIY ideas by Amit Gupta and Kelly Jensen.

This is exactly the kind of book I wish I had back in the day, and one that should be considered as part of a package when giving a camera to a teen. The book has dozens of quick, cheap, and easy ideas for how to take unique pictures with any kind of camera, including film cameras, and unique ways to display them. Most of the craftier project require simple tools and materials – a cutting blade, tape, markers, paint, materials generally recycled – while a good deal of the tools and projects for taking pictures can be assembled on the fly or made with things lying around the house.

For less that a couple bucks worth of materials from a hardware store you can make a string monopod to help keep your camera steady and a portable tripod that screws onto the top of a soda or water bottle, both of which will fit in your pocket and easily replace a bag full of expensive equipment. And if you can gather a couple dozen clear empty CD cases you can make a photo mural display that actually makes for a pretty cool way to show off your photos.

There are some way-out-there projects as well that require additional skills and materials – like making a photo messenger bag with photo-printed cloth and a bit of sewing, or the photo lamp project that requires some simple wiring – but it's totally accessible and the final projects look awesome.

The book is divided in to two parts, the first half is projects for displaying photos and the second half focuses on taking pictures. One of my favorites is the idea of taking pictures of strangers in exchange for lollipops. The idea is to create a series of portraits (which you can later arrange in an awesome CD mosaic frame, of course) that forces the photographer to try and capture something more than a simple "say cheese" moment.

I think with teens a lot of time they would take more interesting pictures if they had some guidance, but most books on photography tend to either be dry and technical, or don't manage to convey the idea that photography can be fun. This isn't a technical manual, not by a long shot, but it does have enough to give a budding (or bored) photographer something to jump-start their creative juices.

If you know (or are) a teen with a camera who doesn't really know what to do with it, photojojo might just be the next book to read.

photojojo!: insanely great proto projects and DIY ideas
by Amit Gupta and Kelly Jensen
Potter Craft / Random House 2009

They also have a website with cool tips and idea and a store that sells nifty photo-related stuff as well (including the book):
http://photojojo.com/

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Young Inferno by John Agard

The Young Inferno by British poet John Agard, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura, is a modern retelling of the story written centuries ago by Dante Aligheri. This up-to-date retelling is written in rhyme and illustrated in graphic-novel-like style. While some of the details of the original Inferno have been altered, this version will give you a clear idea of what the story is actually about.

Rather than being escorted by Virgil, the main character – a teenage boy in a hoodie – is escorted through the various levels of hell by Aesop, author of fables. The rhyme is readily understandable, with an occasional Britishism (e.g., "trainers" instead of "sneakers") to make things interesting. Here's a sample from the start, so you can see if it might be your cup of tea brimstone:

In the middle of my childhood wonder
I woke to find myself in a forest
that was – how shall I put it – wild and sombre.

No sign of light. Not a star twinkling.
The whole thing was kind of creepy and crawly.
I still shudder in my trainers, just thinking

of those scary monsters lurking in the leaves,
and death itself putting on a grinning mask
and rehearsing its whispers for the breeze.


Full of humor and wit, this interpretation of Inferno may not stand in as a substitute for reading Dante's classic, but it will certainly convey the sense and feeling of the original classic in modern terms.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Amazon Adventure


As kids, many of us fantasized about exploration of undiscovered territories, whether that meant Antarctica or Mars, mountains or jungles. Many folks grow up to realize that there aren't that many untouched places left on planet Earth, and that the risks in getting to and exploring the ones that are still unexplored are great. One way to feed that need for exploration is to read about others who have set out to see what they could find. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann is one such story that will transport you to another time and place, one of countless dangers and endless possibilities.

Grann's book is mostly about Percy Fawcett, an explorer who favored small expeditions to unmapped territories. He made several expdetions into the Amazon before disappearing there, along with his son Jack and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell, in 1925. The story also follow's Grann's own quest to follow in Fawcett's footsteps as much as possible and try to discover whether Fawcett's obsession and goal, a great civilization in the middle of the jungle that he called "Z" ever actually existed.

The Lost City of Z is full of adventure, from the rivalries that existed in the world of exploration in the early 1900s, the history of the Royal Geographical Society, to the dangers that explorers faced in the Amazon, everything from hostile tribes to deadly insects, fish, and snakes. We learn of Fawcett's history and eccentricism, how he was seemingly indestrictible, and how he inspired others to follow him into the unknown. Fawcett's life and story were the basis for quite a number of novels and movies, including a book where Indiana Jones comes across Fawcett on one of his quests. The difficulty of exploration in this time period, when modern conveniences such as GPS and lightweight equipment were not available, is truly felt in the descriptions of the daily drudgery that was endured by any member of a Fawcett expedtion.


When Fawcett and his party disappeared in 1925, it was big news. Many other explorers mounted their own expeditions to find him, or at least find out what happened to him (most theories had him being captured and killed by one of the area tribes). While there were clues and conflicting stories, no one was able to bring back definitive word of Fawcett's fate, and some of the parties didn't return at all.

In this book, Grann puts together Fawcett's story, the stories of explorers who tried to find him, and his own search for the truth about Fawcett, taking him from interviewing Fawcett's relatives and into the Amazon itself to look for clues. The Lost City of Z is as suspenseful as any fictional adventure story and really allows you to get a feel for what Amazonian exploration was like. It doesn't matter that Grann doesn't find out the truth about what happened to Fawcett, you don't really expect him to. This book is all about the journey, and what a journey to go along on.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book, but also took the book out of the library so that I could check out the pictures. The audio was good, but a few of the Brazilian place names were mispronounced, which I only knew because my wife speaks Portuguese. The audio would be a great way to pass the time on a road trip, even one that's not quite as eventful as the journey described in this book.

Cross posted at Dwelling in Possibility.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

The Future Is Now


So it's 2010. Now that we're all living in the future, we should probably do some brush up reading about it. Ender's Game: Battle School (by Yost and Ferry) is the adaptation of the first part of Orson Scott Card's neo-classic Ender's Game about young Ender Wiggin, who is drafted into the rigorous Battle School by somewhat insidious military masters in hopes that Ender is the prodigy who can save earth from an imminent invasion by a horde of incoming aliens. Focusing on the first part of the novel allows a deep exploration into Ender's battle not only with his peers in the school (in some particularly thrilling zero-gravity tactical exercises) but also his struggle to heal the scars of psychological torture left by his monstrous older brother.

The companion piece to that little beauty is Ender's Shadow: Battle School (by Carey and Fiumara), also based on the opening chapters of Card's original, which in this case follows Bean, a supporting character in the narrative of the main novel. Bean grows up on the hard streets, where he shows his innate intelligence by simply surviving, until he's noticed by those some military schemers and taken into battle school, where his destiny parallels Ender's own, in a slow build towards an inevitable meeting. Much of the suspense in Bean's story comes from the mystery of his origins and the realization on the military's part that Bean might be too smart for the battle school.

Each books tells a grand story on its own, but taken together, they reflect common themes more powerfully and create a sense of a huge universe and a sweeping adventure in the making. The art in each also works beautifully to counterpoint the differing tones. Ferry's art on Ender's Game is clean and slick, but with expressive faces and incredibly polished action. Fiumara gives Ender's Shadow a dirty grit that captures the sense and danger of the streets.

Welcome to the future and happy New Year.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

If you live in the Tempe, AZ area then check this out

Changing Hands Bookstore and Hoodlums Music and Movies present YAllapalooza 2010, a literary musical extravaganza featuring live bands, pizza, games, prizes, and a chance to mix and mingle with your favorite YA authors and get books signed! We’ll have a live game show that tests contestants’ knowledge of young adult and middle grade literature with games GUARANTEED to amaze and amuse. Los Angeles authors include Cecil Castellucci, Carol Snow, Blake Nelson, Andrew Smith, Mark London Williams, and Amy Goldman Koss. Arizona authors include Janette Rallison, James A. Owen, Angela Morrison, Janni Lee Simner, Tom Leveen, Tony Carrillo, Aprilynne Pike, and Jon Lewis. Bands to be announced.

It's scheduled for this weekend!

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Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick


Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick
"When Private Matt Duffy wakes up in an army hospital in Iraq, he's honored with a Purple Heart. But he doesn't feel like a hero.

There's a memory that haunts him: an image of a young Iraqi boy as a bullet hits his chest. Matt can't shake the feeling that he was somehow involved in his death. But because of a head injury he sustained just moments after the boy was shot, Matt can't quite put all the pieces together.

Eventually Matt is sent back into combat with his squad—Justin, Wolf, and Charlene—the soldiers who have become his family during his time in Iraq. He just wants to go back to being the soldier he once was. But he sees potential threats everywhere and lives in fear of not being able to pull the trigger when the time comes. In combat there is no black-and-white, and Matt soon discovers that the notion of who is guilty is very complicated indeed."- summary from Amazon

I picked this up from my shelves to read recently mainly because I'd been reading a LOT of more light-hearted novels and so felt I needed something more serious to kind of balance it all out. I've also read a tiny bit of McCormick before ("Cut" and her story in "Up All Night") and was excited to read this new book of hers. This is a great book and is written so well. It's told in third person but mainly focuses on Matt and his story is so compelling. There's a bit of a mystery to it as Matt is trying to put the pieces back together of just what exactly happened to give him the head injury. The first half of the book details his recovery and the second half deals with him getting back out into the war. I don't think I've read a story about a soldier in a war, especially one still going on, and it hits you emotionally, reading about what these soldiers go through. This book opened my eyes and gave me a new-found appreciation for soldiers going into war. The relationships between everyone are clearly defined and the interactions are written realistically. This is definitely a book that needs to be read by everyone, no matter what age.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause

There was a moment in Superman III when the briefest window of potential in an otherwise dismal film raised open. When Superman was divided into two halves - one purely good, the other purely evil - viewers glimpsed the possibility of a once pristine superhero devolving into a malevolent ultra-human. Blink during the film (or sleep, which wasn't hard to do in Supes III) and you'd miss Christopher Reeve in a dirt-encrusted Superman leotard getting drunk and generally causing mid-grade havoc.


Fortunately, the potential lost on film has been recaptured by writer Mark Waid and artist Peter Krause in Irredeemable, a new graphic novel compilation released by fledgling Boom Studios. Waid is incredibly well-known in the comics field, graduating from the ranks of DC Comics' editors to become one of its most prominent writers. His forte, or at least so says the conventional wisdom, is writing modernized, action-oriented superhero stories that somehow manage to stay true to the traditions of the classic characters he's assigned. Over the years, Waid has revitalized The Flash, Superman, the Fantastic Four and others. None of this work, however, can prepare you for what he has done with Irredeemable. Inscrutably, this writer of classic, traditional comics has taken the Superman tradition and twisted it straight to hell.



Imagine if Superman became totally corrupted - not by some rainbow variety of kryptonite or by some stock villain of the week, but by something far more common and insidious - the common man. Imagine having super hearing, only to always hear every snarky, sarcastic, hateful comment uttered by an otherwise "adoring" public. And imagine trying to live a normal life when the paparazzi can just never, ever get enough of you. Think Brad and Angelina have it bad? How much worse would it be if they had super powers?


None of the traditional Superman iconography is present in the book, but it doesn't have to be. By decontextualizing the Superman character (referred to in Irredeemable as The Plutonian) readers get a clearer "take" on the man-god than could ever be accomplished within one of the Man of Steel's actual books. In many ways, Superman's costume and image engender so many pop culture-driven connotations there is really no way to critically examine such a character. So Waid has done the next best thing by giving readers a Superman they can deconstruct.


Most comics fans will recognize that many of the themes, techniques and characterizations in Irredeemable have been seen before, most notably in Alan Moore's Miracleman (Moore's take on the Captain Marvel story) and Watchmen (where Dr. Manhattan represents the loss of humanity that comes from gaining super powers). That is not to say, though, that Irredeemable is a cheap copy or stylistic cheat of some kind. Far from it. Consider it instead a kind of amalgamation: one part gee-whiz-bang-pow locomotive of an action story, another part cultural commentary, and a third part subversion of the archetypal superhero motif. Read it...trust me...and don't even THINK about watching Superman III on cable this weekend.


Cross-posted at PastePotPete.


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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Measured in Millimeters


Like most of the rest of the civilized world, France uses the metric system. So diminutive Toby Lolness, the protagonist in Timothee Fombelle's fantastic Toby Alone (translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone), is described as "one and a half millimeters tall." That's better than "3/32 of an inch," although I had to wonder how the people of Toby's world, who are confined to the landscape of a single tree, ever figured out what a millimeter was.

Toby's world is one in which water runs like rivers through the canyons created by tree bark's texture, in which birds are almost immeasurable monsters that descend from the sky like a mythical dragons, in which everyone lives on or in or at least fastened to one truly enormous (to the little people anyway) Tree. The Tree provides everything. Of course there are those who appreciate what the tree gives them, and then there are those who just want to exploit the Tree for their own gain. Sound familiar?

Toby, our 1.5 mm hero, is on the run, being hunted by nearly every other citizen of the Tree (all of whom are in the single digits, millimeter-wise). Toby's parents are in prison and some of his closest friends have turned on him. Why? Because Toby’s father is an inventor who has discovered an almost magical source of energy within the Tree's sap, an energy source that, if harvested, may cause irreparable damage to the Tree. Toby's father, more concerned with the health of the Tree than with the benefits his discovery could bring to the Tree's people, refuses to reveal the secrets of the energy source. Led by big time construction contractor Joe Mitch, the people of the Tree turn on Toby's father and drive him into exile amongst the distant lower branches. Down there, Tree people must contend with the savage Grass People who constantly threaten to invade the Tree—at least that’s what Toby has heard. But finally, Joe Mitch considers exile not punishment enough for the Lolnesses and Toby's parents are captured and Toby is left to flee on his own.

Toby's adventure is well-paced and while the narrative jumps around quite erratically in time, its elements unfold organically. The reader sweats and pants along with Toby whether he is fleeing or facing his enemies, in either case relying on superior cleverness to defeat them. Each time someone betrays Toby, the reader feels the knife in his own back. Toby also grows organically, becoming, by the end, an almost entirely different character. And yet the change occurs so subtly that it's difficult to pick out a single point in the narrative where the change takes place. Toby's world is masterfully presented and de Fombelle has no end of fun in finding tree corollaries for many of the technologies that we larger people (measuring approximately 1,753 millimeters) enjoy. While we milk cows, the Tree people milk insect larvae. While we have bulldozers, the little tree people breed and train giant weevils. The reader begins to believe that if people really were that small they could indeed live off the bounty of such a tree. Thousands of species, after all, do exactly that. De Fombelle seems to understand bugs and vegetation well enough to make the story perfectly believable.

I did find some of the themes of the book cause for . . . maybe not concern but at least careful consideration. Toby's father does not exactly act as a censor of information; he promises not to stand in the way of other scientists and inventors who seek the secrets of the Tree's sap. But I wonder what his moral obligations are regarding this information. While of course I agree with the book's environmental message that the Tree should not be mindlessly and limitlessly tapped for its energy, I don't like the idea of an elite individual privy to knowledge which isn't shared with the larger populous. Still, that Toby Alone's plot centers on such an issue is laudable. It's one of the more complex treatments related to science and environmentalism that I've seen in a book for young people and it certainly leaves the door open for debate on what's right.

I also found the violence in the book mildly disturbing. While in general de Fombelle seems to emphasize the use of brains over brawn, and his good and noble characters usually fret over situations in which they must hurt people in order to survive, there are also instances of particularly brutal violence being treated as funny, as a kind of slapstick pratfall which might leave every bone in your body bruised or broken. Again, this inconsistency is at once unsettling and an invitation to the reader to consider the consequences of physical confrontation.

The book has a satisfying ending, but leaves a number of unanswered questions likely to be addressed in the forthcoming sequel, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree.

Crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Say hello to my literary friend: interviews with Al Pacino


I love reading about the creative process. I'll devour critical analyses of writers I've never read (and some times never heard of). I feel cheated if a DVD doesn't have a commentary track. If I like something, I want to know how it came about.

A lot of artists (in the broadest sense) try to write about their own creative process. One of the best is Stephen King's semi-autobiography On Writing, but then again, writers should be good at putting their process into words. Musicians generally fail at this; visual artists do somewhat better. But the absolute worst tend to be actors, who combine a thin level of intelligence with an over-inflated sense of self and a deep-seated belief that, to put it rather crudely, their own farts don't smell.

But there are exceptions, and one of them is Al Pacino.

There's no denying his status (he's played Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, Tony Montana, Big Boy Caprice and Satan) but what Lawrence Grobel's collection of career-spanning interviews makes clear is that Pacino is both talented and extremely intelligent about his craft Al Pacino, the book, is as surprising at Al Pacino the actor.



Pacino started as a theater actor, and even after movie stardom he continues to tread the boards. He's knowledgaeble about Shakespeare, understands the core of contemporary drama and has even financed and directed a couple of films based on stage plays, unreleased until a recent DVD box set.



The interviews span his career from the late 70s to the mid 00s. His perspective matures as he does, and changes dramatically when he has children. There are personal, gossipy bits, but the book is mostly interested in finding how Pacino the person channels into Pacino the actor, and how that actor views his craft.



All teenage boys know Pacino from Scarface, even if it's only from the omnipresent posters or quotes ("Say hello to my li'l friend!") that have permeated hip-hop culture. They might even know him from Heat, or the classic Godfather films. What they might not know is how far from the "real" Pacino these characters truly are. The man revealed by these interviews is both talented and lucky, that's true; but he also, even as he closes in on age 70, continues to challenge himself. Not many of his status, in any field, dare to do the same.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

The Rock and the River -- Kekla Magoon

Chicago, 1968. As the son of a famous civil rights activist, 13-year-old Sam Childs' life is complicated as it is -- living in the public eye is difficult, his father's expectations are high, and there isn't much room for differing opinions. Luckily, Stick, his older brother and best friend, understands and supports him.

But then Stick changes -- he has new friends, spends more and more time out of the house, is more quick to challenge his father's beliefs and actions, is openly critical about the non-violent methods used by the civil rights movement, and, more upsetting than anything else, is clearly keeping secrets from Sam.

When Sam finds and reads some Black Panther literature hidden under Stick's bed, he realizes that he needs to understand Stick's new way of thinking for himself -- regardless of what his father thinks.

I've read quite a few books about the civil rights movement written for middle grade and teen audiences, and I'm pretty sure that The Rock and the River is the first one I've read that deals with the beginnings of the Black Panther Party -- or the Black Panther Party at all, for that matter. I'm also pretty sure that it's the first one I've read that explores the differences of opinion within the civil rights movement. I found both of those aspects of the book completely fascinating.

I did feel that to some extent, the characters took a backseat to the history -- that they served as props in a lesson, rather than the history serving as a backdrop for a story about people -- but I do feel that not all readers will share that opinion. And even though I felt that the characters were more archetype than human, that isn't to say that there was no tension in the book -- from the moment of the gun's introduction, I worried about how it would eventually be used. So, while I didn't find it an amazing read, I found it a compelling read -- and it's certainly one that I'll keep in mind when I'm helping young patrons find historical fiction.

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Book source: Review copy from the publisher; Cybils nominee.

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