Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blackout & All Clear by Connie Willis

If you have read my blog over the past few years, than you know that Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors. I love her humor and her attention to detail. The books she has written about time-traveling historians fulfill some of my favorite fields: history, comedy, sci-fi. So I was thrilled when I found out she was writing another book about future historians traveling back to World War II (not just any historians. This book is a return to the world she created in two other books. It makes for a more complete story if you've read her other time travel books). Then I discovered she was only releasing half of the book at a time. It is not a series. It is literally one story that stops dead in the middle. You cannot read one of the books without reading the other. I would rather the book had been published together (as though I have any say in the matter, right?) But it did make me hesitate before I read the books.

Blackout was the first book I read on a Nook app. (As an aside, reading on a tablet is worth a discussion of its own which I'll save for another day.) I appreciated Willis' attention to detail. She has done extensive research into World War II London and her characters and situations are believable. Yes, the main premise is time-traveling historians but, Willis writes an extremely vivid, realistic War experience. The book jumps between different characters researching the War who find themselves in the middle of horrifying events.

Jump to book two: All Clear. This book literally picks up right where the first one left off. Around page 300 I was frustrated. I was 800 pages into the story and there was a lot of second-guessing and doubling back. Willis spent too much time having the characters question themselves, and debate the same issues over and over. I remember feeling the same way 3/4 of the way through The Doomsday Book.

Around page 900 Willis finally started to wrap parts of the story up. Characters who had been introduced early in the book were finally explained - the connections between different figures appeared. Some of the ideas introduced very briefly in the beginning of the first book reappeared and started to connect. I kept reading.

Then I hit the last 150 pages and could not put the book down. Willis, in her typical fashion, tied everything together beautifully. It wasn't a happy Christmas bow - not everyone ended up with the perfect ending. There are questions left, but not in such a way to feel as though she's just trying to write another book and make more money. And the last two pages made it all worthwhile. Willis created a link I had not seen coming but was so appropriate. It does make me want to go back and reread To Say Nothing of the Dog - the first Willis book I read and the beginning of an literary obsession.

I think she could have cut out 100+ pages in the middle. I wish the book had been released as a single 1000-page tome. But, I remain a die-hard fan.

(This is the "small" image. I don't know how to make it smaller. Apologies!)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I love Neil Gaiman's books. He can create the most fascinating, dynamic, unique worlds. I have read all of his adult books. But I am not as enamored of his children's literature. I feel it is a bit dark (who am I kidding, it's really dark). I liked Coraline as a story, but it is not something I have given either of my kids and probably won't for some time. So, it was with trepidation that I picked up The Graveyard Book. I was surprised when I found out it had won the Newberry Medal - the highest honor a children's book can receive in the United States.

I will admit to being pleasantly surprised. I really enjoyed Gaiman's story. While dark - the premise is that a young boy's family is killed and he is raised by ghosts in a graveyard to protect him from the murderer - the story is not graphic or scary or otherwise inappropriate for a children's story. Yes there is suspense and there is implicit violence, but there is nothing over the top (a phrase I could frequently use with Gaiman).

One of the reasons I liked this book was the way Gaiman put the chapters together. There is a clear overarching story that follows from the beginning to the end. But each chapter is episodic. You could read an individual chapter as a complete story - a point Gaiman makes about his own book. In fact, the chapter about the witch was originally published as an independent short story. When reading to kids, having a complete story is a nice touch.

Another feature is Gaiman's incredible creativity and novel way of seeing the world. His ghosts resemble characters in other literature, but they all have a Gaiman twist which keeps them original and engaging. His perceptions of death and the afterlife while familiar are not overly dark if a kid were reading the story.

Possibly an odd aside, but the copy I read included Gaiman's Newberry acceptance speech which was amazing. It had Gaiman's wry humor, a respectful amount of humility, but also a poignancy. Gaiman reminded his readers/listeners that great literature to a child is nothing more than a book that creates an escape. What we read as kids doesn't ever have to win awards or even be memorable five years down the road so long as it creates a world to explore.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

(Not Beginner) Chapter Books

Now that my kids have jumped into reading I am beginning to realize how many levels of books it is necessary to have. I knew about the categories of pictures, beginning readers, and chapter books. But my kids are smack in-between beginning readers and longer chapter books. They can handle chapters, but don't want 150+ pages. They still like pictures on pages, but want themes that relate to them. Thank goodness for librarians and classroom teachers. I have been compiling a list to meet the needs of Eldest who loves to read, likes adventure/fantasy stories, prefers human protagonists to animals, wants to read Harry Potter, but is still only 7. It's harder than I would have thought. But, in case, you have an avid reader who is still developing his reading ability, here are some suggestions that we are working on:

The first category is the emerging bridge between graphic novel/chapter book which is really popular in my house:

  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (probably the first in this genre. Its popularity has helped create many others)
  • Big Nate (undoubtedly riding on the popularity of Wimpy Kid, but Eldest enjoyed it)
  • Magic Pickle (one book in the series is a pure graphic novel. Eldest was disappointed the others had actual chapters...)
  • Frankie Pickle (while being forced to clean his room, Frankie fights a monster with an old tuna and mayonnaise sandwich...)
  • Dragonbreath (while this seems to be popular for many kids, Eldest has turned his nose up at it. Too cute-looking maybe???)
  • and of course... Captain Underpants (just in case you don't have a young kid and haven't heard of this series)

As for actual chapter books, without the graphic novel concept, it has been tougher. Eldest has told me in the past that he can't see the pictures in his head, so he really prefers the visual. But I'm working on encouraging more chapter books as we seem to be running low on age-appropriate graphic novels. I'm liberal in what he can read, but hardcore manga is not okay. Yet.

Here are a few books that have caught on in our house or we are planning to try this summer:
  • Black Lagoon chapter books (Eldest picked up the picture books at school, so he knows the series. He can read these in one sitting, but he's reading!)
  • Naruto chapter books (based on the Japanese manga show, this series has been toned down for a younger audience. It appeals to Eldest but is *clean* enough for mom)
  • Dragon Slayers Academy series (these are popular with a lot of kids. I am trying to convince Eldest to read them, but haven't had any luck yet)
  • Secrets of Droon series (same as above. I think if I could get him started, he'd like the series, but so far Eldest has resisted)

I would love any other suggestions or ideas. Anything to encourage a love of reading...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hunger for Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez

I first saw this book on a high school summer reading list at the bookstore in Colorado. Asking about it on the East Coast very few people had heard of it. That different alone peaked my interest. Is the academic interest in Hispanic culture that much larger west of the Mississippi? (Yes, there is a demographic reality that answers my question. But as an "American" isn't the melting pot relevant everywhere?) Lo and behold, my dad, a high school English teacher - who lives in Colorado - had the book on his shelf. So I stole his copy.

It took me seven months to finish this book. I liked it when I started but it was not a compelling enough read to encourage me to pick it up after setting it down. It was only my resolution to finish uncompleted academic books that spurred me to finish. I'm glad I did, but now that I'm done I have more questions than answers.

The premise of Rodriguez's autobiography is his attempt to understand his position in upper-class American academia at the height of affirmative action. He makes some poignant and relevant points about race versus socio-economic status. Having a solid middle class education he did not feel "right" being the recipient of affirmative action scholarships, despite his Mexican heritage. To him those scholarships needed to go to the economically disadvantaged who did not have enough schooling to get into college in the first place. Published twenty years ago, his point is still apt. Too many students suffer at the lower levels and would not succeed in college whether they had the funds or not.

The chapter on Catholicism was, to me, the most interesting. I found Rodriguez's descriptions of his journey with religion more genuine than other chapters. Coming of age in the same era when mass changed from Latin to English, he felt a social and personal disparity with Catholicism. Reading about how immersed his daily personal life was in religion explained some social and cultural issues that I had never considered living in the largely secular world.

The final chapter bothered me. There was too much navel gazing. Too much whining. No conclusions. So what? He had these revelations and then ended the book telling us he was writing a book. He had given up on academia. And? What next?

I wonder how high school teachers teach this book. What point is being made? Why are students being asked to read this as part of a summer reading list? It could have merit in the classroom, depending on how it is presented.

At the end, I'm torn. Glad I read it but don't know that I will spend much more time thinking about it.

**apologies for the size of the picture. Blogger is... picky about formatting picture size.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Sorry for being gone for most of the past three months. I have hit a wall with blogging about what I read. I finish a decent book and thing, how much can I say about this series that I haven't already said three times before? Or I read a book for leisure, finish and think: enjoyable. Enough said. So many people blog so much that I am feeling lost in the shuffle of excess.

There are two directions I can take the blog and I think I will work at both.

1. I am trying to get back into reading more academic work. There has been a lot published since I graduated and I would like to see how the literature has changed. I have three books sitting at home with bookmarks waiting to be finished. So that's where I will start.
  • Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong - I finished yesterday
  • Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez an autobiography - I should finish today or tomorrow
  • Body by Weimar: Athletes, Gender, and German Modernity by Erik Jensen - I'm on page 52 and would like to finish before classes start next week
2. Kid's books. My boys are reading so differently right now. And finding age-appropriate and interest-appropriate books is a challenge - but a challenge I love. Maybe not every book, but when something jumps out, I will post about what catches their interest.

And I won't ignore my own books completely. If there's something particularly engaging or worth discussing, I will still post it.

Happy New Year!