A Place on Earth (Berry)

What a remarkably quiet and elegant story of not only a place (Port William, Kentucky), but also of people (Mat Feltner) and a time (the story ends with the end of WW2). The book will make you want to take a walk, to look carefully, to work with your hands. Berry wants you to remember that “a man’s life is always dealing with permanence-that the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doing as temporary. . . What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent” (180).

If I have a quibble, and it is only that, a quibble, it’s that pretty much all of the characters are a bit too wise and insightful.

This is the story of a community at a particular time. These are neighbors who can speak without words, who understand over time. There is a sadness in this book, that of time passing and death approaching, not just for those who have aged, but those who have gone off to war. This is a book about generations, both of land and of people.

I look forward to Berry’s other Port William stories.

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Coraline (Gaiman)

I once had a student recommend a Neil Gaiman book to me (American Gods), but its size intimidated me a bit. Then I admired his response to a politician’s comment about his neck.

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/05/opinions-of-pencil-necked-weasel-thief.html

I decided to start slowly with Coraline. What a delightfully well-constructed and genuinely scary story. His writing is vivid, his characterizations and plot artful.

Can’t wait to see what Tim Burton has done with it.

http://coraline.com/

I’m not sure I’m ready to dig into American Gods yet, but I’ll get there.

Ninth Ward (Rhodes)

Enough time has passed, it seems, for people to start writing about Hurricane Katrina. Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water and Eggers’ Zeitoun are both excellent (and very different) non-fiction books written for adults. Rhodes has tried something different here; she’s written a story for young adults (I’m thinking 5th or 6th grade). Lanesha has been adopted by Mama Ya-Ya, her mother’s midwife (her mother died giving birth). She has ‘ordinary’ kid issues (friends, a dog, an annoying neighbor, getting teased, etc.). Oh, and she and Mama Ya-Ya can see ghosts, including Lanesha’s mother. Then it comes time for the Ninth Ward to get ready for the storm. The once annoying TaShon become her helper (along with the dog they share, Spot, and Lanesha’s ghostly mother provides timely assistance) and they, well (spoiler alert), survive the storm. Maybe it’s because I read those two other books, but this book seems oversimplified in a problematic way. They get out of the house, but what next? What happens next in the Ninth Ward? Both children are without any kind of adults in their lives (TaShon got separated from his parents at the Superdome). I wouldn’t want this to be a student’s only understanding of the Hurricane or even New Orleans.

Empty (Weyn)

Apocalyptic / dystopian fiction is really popular now in the young adult fiction world. A discussion of why that might be is better left for another post. But what makes something like The Hunger Games catch on and something like Weyn’s Empty fail so miserably? I think it’s the writing. Though it’s been a bit of time since I read the first part of Collins’ trilogy (I’m not reading the other two until they come out in paperback), but I recall being caught up in the creation of her world and the people who populate it. Weyn fails miserably on both counts. Rather than creating a world, she tries to take the specifics of our current one (a generic ’10 Years in the Future’) and say that because of our over-reliance on oil, that things will, as Yeats says much more eloquently, “fall apart / the centre cannot hold.” But her prose is didactic, and the dialogue is clunky. This is movie of the week stuff. And the female characters are especially poorly drawn. In the end, despite all that’s going on, what they really want is their man.

Elijah of Buxton (Curtis)

It’s hard for an adult to write in a child’s voice, and I don’t think Curtis gets it here. There’s something too deliberate, too self-conscious about his Elijah. The book meanders for a while – setting and celebrating the scene, introducing the mainly one-dimensional characters. Then Curtis offers us some fairly predictable plot. Though the ending is interesting, the book doesn’t hang together well. Curtis has an outstanding reputation, so I’ll try some of his other books, but I can’t recommend this one.

Skippy Dies (Murray)

On the front cover, Jess Walter is quoted as saying that this book is “the Moby-Dick of Irish prep schools.” Though I’ve read all 661 pages of this book and all of the Melville (okay, maybe I didn’t read all of the intervening chapters), I still have no idea what this means. Are there that many other books about Irish prep schools?

Skippy Dies is sprawling and ambitious, perhaps a bit more leaned in the direction of the young protagonists (Skippy, Ruprecht et all) than the teacher (Howard), but perhaps I just identified more with the teacher. One wonders about how Murray planned all of this. There are doughnuts, druids, physics, the French Horn, World War I, etc.. I could track all of it, except perhaps some of the physics, but detailed background knowledge wasn’t necessary. There are, in every aspect of this book, two worlds, and characters are constantly, and in all sorts of creative and desperate ways trying to move from one to  the other. They finally stop when, somewhat conveniently, one character, not really known for her academic prowess, remembers something she learned about French poetry. She quotes Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

On her own, she then comes to the (again, somewhat too profound) conclusion that . . .”it’s stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to god or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word” (654). Then she takes a meaningful bite of a doughnut, a treat is prominent here as it is in Olive Kitteridge.

Murray writes well, though he gets a bit over the top at times. He is able to effectively articulate his insights into the male mind as well as the inner workings of a prep school.

Good stuff, if a bit long.

Rough Weather (Parker)

I used to love the TV show with Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. I wonder how it holds up now. Joe Mantegna read this well, though why pick a Chicago guy for a Boston story? Mantegna does different voices for various characters, but they are more suggestions of voices, so they stay within his range. The story is fine – entertaining for an audiobook – but the girlfriend – smart, sexy, and a great cook is a bit much. Hawk, too, is a bit one-dimensional. (I fear that if I watch the series again, I’ll be disappointed – was that all we could come up with for Avery Brooks’ immense talent?)

Small point. We teach children not to try too hard for different kinds of “said” words. We ask them to keep it simple. Parker does that, but hearing every single “said” in a dialogue heavy book became grating.

I’d read / listen to another Spenser story and will see if NetFlix has it.