Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thematically Linked

When one reads many books in a short period of time, seemingly coincidental connections between them become evident. Not long ago, for example, I suddenly realized that three books in a row made mention of the drug laudenum.

Here are some thematic links I’ve noticed so far during this Summer Reading Spectacular:

art and artists (particularly Impressionists) -- The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World; False Impression;

wars -- The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World; How I Live Now, False Impressions, Maus: Volume One, The Book Thief;

The Second World War, in Particular -- The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, Maus: Volume One, The Book Thief;

pregnancy and birth -- Feathers, Edward’s Eyes, 11 Birthdays;

deafness -- Hate That Cat, Feathers;

hiding places -- The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Ordinary Ghosts, Off the Road, False Impressions (sort of), The Book Thief, Where I Live Now, Maus: Volume One;

metaphors about bowling balls in stomachs (seriously) -- The Book Thief, 11 Birthdays;

the sentiment that you can’t eat books -- The Book Thief, Maus: Volume One;

death -- almost all of them.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #13

(Five months to Christmas!)

As this was my last day on the Hermitage, I wrapped up a few things I was reading, but that didn’t stop me from starting a couple of others.

First off, I completed The Underwood See by Michael Lawrence. It’s the final book in the Withern Rise trilogy, and I have to admit that I’m a bit split in my opinion. The series deals with alternate realities of a family and homestead in England, called Withern Rise. The first book (A Crack in the Line) got things off to an interesting start as two kids, Alaric and Naia, accidentally find themselves moving between their worlds. In one, Ivan and Alex(andra) had a boy and later Alex dies. In the other, they have a girl and the mother lives. After discovering one another, the two dimensional travelers accidentlly end up stranded in the other’s reality. In the second book (Small Eternities) things got more complicated, with other realities colliding and other characters entering the scene. In this third volume, the story gets further complicated before being resolved. And yes, things are reasonably resolved, which is a good thing. It kept my interest.

But the flip side is that this volume took on a distinctly darker tone, in places, and it didn’t seem quite to fit with the tone of the other volumes. Now, it has been quite some time since I read volumes one and two, so perhaps I’ve just forgotten, but if not, then I find it a bit disappointing that this one wandered off the path a bit. Course language, an attempted rape, and some moderate religious disdain seemed to come out of nowhere. An interesting series, but I just wonder if the author became a bit self-indulgent by this point.

Next, I read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale Volume One – My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman. The first half of a graphic novel (originally serialized in Raw magazine), it’s a biographical comic based on the author’s father’s experiences as a Jew in Germany and Poland during the Second World War. There are several interesting things about the book. First off, perhaps inspired by the quotation on the back of the title page (“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” by Adolf Hitler), the characters are represented as animals. Jews are mice (hence the title), Polish are pigs, and the Germans, cats. Secondly, the narratives are a combination of conversations between the author and his father and step-mother (as mice, of course) and the stories themselves passed on by the father during these interviews. There’s a real sense of transcription to the manner in which the story is told. Finally, the book is interesting in that the characters, particularly that of Vladek, the father, are not idealized. At one point, in fact, the author, as represented within the body of the text, distresses that his comic’s representation of his father might reinforce awful stereotypes of the Jew.

I’m looking forward to finding and reading Volume Two, but also to finding out more about the comic, its history, and the author. The name “Art Spiegelman” rings a bell, but I have no idea why.

Finally, I finished a fluffy little dessert book for kids called 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass. In a nutshell, it’s a “Groundhog Day” story about a girl who, having had a falling out with her lifelong friend the previous year, begins to relive her eleventh birthday over and over again. It was ... fine. What made it meh for me, in particular, was the feeling that the author seemed to try and overcomplicate matters, trying too hard to add “layers” to the mystery of what is happening to Amanda and how to resolve the problem. A simpler, cleaner resolution (perhaps one about the need for this slightly whiny, self-indulgent protagonist to suck it up and stop thinking only of herself) would have rung more true to me; instead the second half of the book took on a sort of “just ‘cause” feeling. I’m sure many kids will like it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #11

Today, I pretty much marathon-read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I started it yesterday, alternating as I usually do between it and other books. This morning, I took up residence in my little beach chair and read several more chapters, skipped over to another book for a few chapters, and then returned to The Book Thief. Apart from breaking for a meal, I read it straight through from there until I was finished.


I don’t even want to bother clumsily summarizing its plot, other than to say that it’s set during the Second World War. I’ll quote two sentences from its narrator instead:

I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

This is one of those books that I’ll be sharing with others without a doubt. It was given the Michael L. Printz Honor in 2006 and I’m left with one itching question: What the heck won the medal that year?

[I looked it up. American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to receive the award, won. I just ordered it.]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Production Values

Have you ever noticed the variety and sheer number of producers working on television shows? No? Let me talk you through it.

Here's what you'll find during the opening credits of Episode Two of 30 Rock, a show I find fatally enjoyable.

Executive Producer: Tina Fey

Executive Producer: Joann Alfano

Executive Producer: Marci Klein

Executive Producer: David Miner

Co-Executive Producer: Robert Carlock

Co-Executive Producers: Brett Baer and Dave Finkel

Co-Executive Producer: Jack Burditt

Co-Executive Producer: John Riggi

Supervising Producer: Adam Bernstein

Producer: Jeff Richmond

Produced by Jerry Kupfer

Still not enough for you? Then let's look at the closing credits, as well!

Executive Producer: Lorne Michaels

Co-Producer: Irene Burns

Co-Producer: Matt Hubbard

Co-Producer: Margo A. Myers

Associate Producers: Jennifer Danielson and Andrew Singer

Them's a lot o' producers.

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #10

Two more books finished today and four currently in the works.

Fist, I finished up the short novel Edward’s Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan, author of the Newbery Medal-winning Sarah, Plain and Tall. One thing that has always struck me about MacLachlan’s books is the gentle, sincere nature of the storytelling. She deals with emotion in a way that rings true without ever using it sensationally. One of my students had read Edward’s Eyes and told me I should read it, which I’m glad I did. It’s the sort of novel that my ten-year-old self would have loved, too.

I also finished the Michael L. Printz Award-winner How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff. I went into reading unknowingly, basically having bought the book from the bargain shelves because it seemed vaguely interesting and had the Printz seal on its cover. I was pleased, then, to finally pick it up and start reading and to be sucked in quite readily. In a nutshell (and an overly simplistic nutshell this will be), the book follows Daisy, an American sent to live with unknown relatives in England, as she arrives in the countryside home of her cousins and quickly finds herself cut off from everything she finds familiar when the country becomes an Occupied Territory in the midst of War. The narrative voice is distinct, a big part of the book’s appeal. The storyline is engaging, affecting, and will have certainly (I’m sure) drawn the attention of the Southern States who are so much in love with making lists of books to ban. A quick, but satisfying read, it’s certainly one I’d recommend.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #9

The weather has been odd up here this year. Apart from being generally cooler, we’ve been getting a lot of those little showers and mini showers. It has seriously made scheduling my reading-on-the-beach sessions complicated.

Today I finished Jeffrey Archer’s False Impressions. Stupid me just realized this very minute that the little fingerprint graphic on the dustjacket is a picture of Van Gogh, not just a multicoloured fingerprint. Yeesh.

I admit that I’m an Archer fan. I enjoy his books. Deal with it. This book, involving financial fraud, stolen artwork, and hired assassins helped to make up for the fact that this year I didn’t plan ahead sufficiently to have a Jonathan Santlofer book up here with me. (Santlofer’s books are always art-related thriller-style novels.) For the past few years, I’ve included a volume of Jeffrey Archer’s A Prison Diary on my Hermitage reading list.

Anyway, like most of Archer’s novels, this was an engaging, quick, enjoyable read. Sure, I ‘called’ a few of the plot twists along the way (and even predicted – incorrectly – one that I think Archer should have used), but that didn’t really detract from my enjoyment.

I also finished Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson. The cover says, “Winner of a Newbery Honor,” but I’m not entirely certain if that means the author is a winner of a Newbery Honor or if this book, specifically, is. I’ll have to check. In any case, Feathers is a slim little novel set in an all-black neighbourhood in the 70s and Frannie, the narrator, takes us through a few days in which she tries to sort out relationships and emotions connecting her with her best friend Samantha whose father is a minister, Jesus Boy the new – and surprisingly white – boy in her class, Sean her deaf brother, and her mother who is pregnant. Despite this seemingly complicated summary, it’s really quite a simple book about complex ideas. A poem by Emily Dickinson, presented by the teacher before the first page, is the thread that ties it all together. Hope is the thing with feathers...”

(Wow. This is a very poorly articulated entry. Okay, several of them have been, lately, but this one is particularly bad!)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #9

Today I finished two books started yesterday, continued one, and started two others.

Off the Road by Nina Bawden is sort of a blend of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and ......, with a bit of M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s The Village thrown in for good measure. In a society in which only-children are the law, and where Oldies are sent on their sixty-fifth birthdays to vague fates at Memory Theme Parks, Tom makes a fateful decision of his own when he follows his grandfather who goes “over the wall” and into the Wilds beyond. There he meets a family he never knew existed and discovers a way of life he never imagined. But he is there as an Illegal and the authorities on the Outside will only look the other way for so long. Perhaps my only real criticism of the book is that Bawden could have taken the story further; the premise has potential for so much more. In a roundabout way, I guess that’s a compliment.

I also finished Richard Peck’s Here Lies the Librarian, another example of what Peck does so well – turn-of-the-century(ish) historical / whimsical fiction. This book brought me back to The Teacher’s Funeral and could conceivably be considered a companion work. Here Lies the Librarian deals with tomboyish Eleanor and her brother as they try to operate a garage during the advent of the automobile age in small-town America, while the town is carried along into a miniature renaissance of sorts by a quartet of affluent young women from Indianapolis who take over the local public library. Enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, which I do. Ha!

The Ghost in the Machinery

The DVD player here operates according to a set of mysterious rules that I’m trying to define. Here’s what I’ve seemingly established to this point:

1. When loading a disc, the player will make a rather loud and intrusive mechanical noise through loading, any previews, and the home menu. The noise will stop once you move to an episode-specific menu (X-Files) or an episode itself (30 Rock).

2. When watching any episode after loading the disc certain rules appear to apply. With 30 Rock, this may or may not result in the subtitles being turned on upon initial viewing. With The X-Files, the subtitles will CERTAINLY be turned on to English. Once the subtitles are turned off, the episode will, for reasons unexplained, play without subtitles, but any on-screen text (such as locations and times) will also appear in French.

3. If an episode of The X-Files includes a deleted scene, accessed by clicking “select/ok/enter” on the remote when an X appears in the corner of the screen, and if this feature is turned on before viewing, then no subtitles will appear.

4. A second episode viewed without removing the disc will cancel out any odd subtitle behaviours.

Weird, weird, weird.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #8

Today I finished Eireann Corrigan’s Ordinary Ghosts. Emil is coming to grips with the recent death of his mother, and the abrupt and unexplained departure of his older brother. Using a secret master key to the private boys’ school where he attends, he starts sneaking into the school buildings late at night, meeting a mysterious girl who’s sneaking in for her own reasons, and trying to find a way to leave his mark.

The story has a lot going for it, most notably Emil’s complex and somewhat tormented relationships with members of his family, each absent in its own way. There was a story worth telling here. Where it disappointed, though, was in the author’s seemingly insistent “edginess”. I’m fine with books which address the teen experience in a forthright manner, but Corrigan seemed a bit too in-your-face with it. (I told you I’d get to it.) Within pages of starting it was clear that the book was going to include foul language, drug use, and frank sexual references, and that we would be reminded of the author’s commitment to such elements on a pagely basis. Yeah, we get it. Ooo. Edgy. Can we move past it and get on with the story? If I had to read the word “ricockulous” again, I was going to smack someone.

Dear Ms. Corrigan:

I get it. You take pride in being all gritty and for “keepin’ it real”. If you want to see how to do it right, read the works of E.R. Frank. Let it flow from the story; don’t force the issue.


I also read Volume One of Bizenghast, a manga by M. Alice LeGrow (“Marty LeGrow”). In a nutshell, this little gothic horror maga is about an orphaned girl who somehow finds herself in a dark contract that binds her to the task of freeing lost, pained souls bound to a mysterious cementary in the town of Bizenghast. Heck, I read the book and I still find myself using the term “somehow finds herself in a dark contract” because I don’t know how that happened. It just sort of ... is.

Still, a promising premise, right? Right? Well, here’s the problem ... or two. Each ghost must be freed by solving a riddle on its headstone and then helping the spirit to resolve it’s issues. These mini-stories within the bigger are woefully underdeveloped, unfortunately, and the “rules” which govern this middleworld are nebulous at best. Sometimes attacking the ghostly apparition of a victim’s attacker is what’s needed, sometimes turning into a tree (?) works, and throwing a girl off a rooftop might be what frees her. Huh? Add to that the inconsistent quality of the artwork, and I’m left a little cold. The story is further complicated by the fact that the graveyard is apparently run by a manager, a staff, and a cleaning crew (who are, apparently, bad) and the real-world dilemma of Dinah’s perceived dementia. I so wanted to enjoy Bizenghast, as I’ve not really become a manga person, but want to understand the appeal better.

Plus, why do guys in manga look so darned pretty? At one point, I didn’t realize that the character in front of me was Vincent in another setting, though I’d already spent a third of the book with him. Hmmm.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #7

Today was quite a productive day, when it comes to recreational reading!

First off, I finished Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal. Prior to this, I knew Selznick as an illustrator, and this book makes extensive use of those abilities. In telling the story of a boy, clockworks, early cinema, and mystery, the author combines narrative prose with wordless, illustrated passages (and some photographs), creating a silent-film feel which compliments the subject matter brilliantly.

Next, while sitting down by the lake, I read The Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers. Coincidentally, this also makes a point of integrating drawings and comic-style strips (by Myers’s son Christopher) into the narrative about a boy struggling with live on the streets of Harlem. Also coincidentally, both Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers are integral to the plot of Hate That Cat which I read yesterday. I read the book cover-to-cover in one sitting this afternoon. It’s interesting to note that Myers was unflinching, in many ways, in addressing harsh realities in his book but never became in-your-face or look-at-how-edgy-I-am-being about it, a problem I’m having with another book I’m reading. (I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it soon.) The Autobiography of My Dead Brother was a National Book Award Finalist, and it’s interesting to note that it was one of those books I’d had on my shelf, waiting to be read, and I kept skipping over it and, when I finally sat down to read it, I whipped through it.

Finally, I read The Death of Superman trade paperback, which had been giving to me last month. I’d read the comics back in the day when the whole Death of Superman storyline was unfolding, but sat down this evening to read it through again, since I’d been given it. I kept thinking, “Oh yeah!” about characters who popped up throughout the story and vaguely remembering how they fit into the bigger picture of the ole DC Universe back in the day.

Little Nemo in Vampland: The Musical

So, I had a rather random dream last night. Like many dreams are wont to do, it sort of flipped from one storyline to another rather abruptly and illogically, though in the dream, of course, it seemed to make perfect sense. One moment I was trying to explain to my visiting mother that both the box of Medieval Times materials in the basement and the one in the hall closet were needed and neither could be thrown out. This was, of course, happening in a house that was both mine and not mine.

Next thing, I am arriving late at the opening of a musical version of Twilight in which, apparently, I am acting. For reasons unexplained, I was never involved in any of the rehearsals but am quickly put into a costume including a very bad wig and reminded that I’m playing the part of Frankie. Having never read or seen Twilight, I have no idea if a Frankie even exists in its context. (If I had internet where I am currently typing, I would check.) After faking my way through the opening scene by staying far stage right, and after somehow getting gum in my wig, I’m able to make an exit and find myself scrambling around backstage begging for someone to give me a copy of the script so I can figure out what I’m supposed to be doing in my next scene. Finally, my friend Tracy (who was apparently in the cast with me) gives me hers, but warns me that it’s a side and, lo and behold, there’s no Scene Three since her character doesn’t appear in it. Just as I’m throwing my arms up in the air and asking, “What do they expect me to do?”, I wake up.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #6

Today I started and finished Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech, which may seem quite impressive until I point out that it’s a short novel for young readers that’s written entirely as a collection of free-verse poems, as was Love That Dog, to which this is a follow-up, and as such is a lightning-fast read. The protagonist, Jack, finds himself with the same poetry-loving teacher, Miss Stretchberry, that he had the previous school year. I went in wondering if it was going to read as an opportunistic retreading of old ground from the other book, but was pleasantly surprised that Creech has woven in the threads of Love That Dog, but managed to make it a successful continuation of Jack’s development. Charming and engaging, with Jack’s voice really being the star of the show. Thanks, Sharon Creech.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #5

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestly is a charmingly gothic series of spooky tales for kids housed within the framework of a story. It hits quite nicely that level of “fun to be creeped out” for kids that Coraline rides on. As a series of shorter stories, of course, none of them are as developed as Neil Gaiman’s novella, but that’s fine; instead they work as (and indeed are presented as) oral narratives in the vein of campfire ghost stories. Fun, slightly silly, and sure to give the nine-to-eleven set a nice case of chills.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #4

Maxx Comedy: The Funniest Kid in America by Gordon Korman was, disappointingly, not very funny.

I am a Korman Fan, having read his books all through the 80s and still collecting them for my own enjoyment as well as for the class library. Sure, there’s a certain formula to many of his books, but it’s a formula that works, one that taps quite nicely into the humour of kids. I guess that’s why this was such a disappointment. It just plain wasn’t that funny. The “surprise ending” is not only 100% predictable, it’s also very anti-climactic. It’s not satisfying. It’s not even believable within the world of the book.

I can only wonder if this one was somehow churned out to satisfy a contractual obligation. You let me down this time, Mr. Korman, but don’t worry; I’ll return for more and continue to expect better.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #3

I just finished reading Bike Path Rapist by my friend Jeff Schober. It's a true crime book about the serial rapist and killer that was active for nearly 30 years in the Buffalo area.

Reading a friend's book can be a dangerous thing. What if it's bad? Yikes!

I didn't have to worry about that, though. The book is surprisingly readable and Jeff avoided sensationalizing the crimes themselves. He plays with chronology in the telling, too, maintaining an overall arc that takes the Task Force's work from start to finish while looping timelines, weaving together the threads of years of events and activities into the fabric of the story. Well done, Jeff!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #2

While in New York (oh, did I mention I went to New York for a few days? I did.) I was in need of a book. When Sonya caught me reading the back of a Band-Aid box, she said, "Let's go. We need to find you some reading material." Off we went to the Wal-greens to find a paperback and the result was Dean Koontz's Velocity. In truth, it just seemed like the best best of what they had.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, at how engaging I found it. In a nutshell, Billy Wiles, unassuming bartender, finds himself at the whim of a killer after he finds a note on his car windshield.

If you don't take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County.

If you do take this note to the police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work.

You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours.

Quickly paced, it kept me turning the pages and interested to the end. Having never read anything by Koontz (that I can recall, anyway), I was relieved that my wee-hours-of-the-morning purchase proved fruitful.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Summer 2009 Reading Spectacular #1

The summer is here and I'm back to reading with some regularity.

I just finished reading The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and highly recommend it. I'd previously read The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by the author and loved it, so it was only a matter of time before I read more of her stuff. (The Sea of Trolls is on my bookshelf waiting to be read, as well.)

The book chronicles the life of Matteo (Matt) Alacran, the clone of the drug lord known as El Patron who rules the strip of land called Opium, which lies sandwiched between Azatlan (formerly Mexico) and the United States. Treated as livestock by most, but like an heir by El Patron, Matt grows up knowing little of the world outside Opium and little of the true character of El Patron until he realizes the function and purpose of clones -- spare parts.

The book has earned accolades such as the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, and the Michael Printz Honor, and rightly so, as far as I'm concerned. Set in an unspecified near future, it's science fiction that barely reads as such.

The Return of Dullgloomy

Okay, as will be clear to even the most oblivious of readers, things at dullgloomy (not to mention anywhere else I post anything) have been less-than-active for quite some time now. Life became ridiculously hectic and something had to give.

If all goes well, we should be back on track ... at least for a while here. (Of course, I doubt anyone's actually checking in here any more, anyway.)