Friday, August 29, 2008

As Simple as Snow by Gregory Galloway

As Simple as Snow is a complex, haunting mystery written by Gregory Galloway. Since its publication in 2005, I have recommended it to a countless number of friends, customers, and literary groups, and mentioned it many times at my blog. I wanted to bring this book to your attention again now, especially if you have read or plan to read Paper Towns by John Green. Paper Towns won't be available in bookstores until October, but ARCs are already making the rounds. Having enjoyed both books, I'm anxious to discuss them with other readers. The writing styles differ, as do the characters, but there are obvious parallels between the two.

Let's drift back into the Snow now. What is it about this story that keeps me talking about it three years after its release? Perhaps it is the way it ends. Perhaps it is the way it begins. (See below for the trailer, in which you can hear the opening pages.) Perhaps it's Anna herself, the charismatic, creative girl at the heart of the story, whose introduction is shocking and memorable and whose disappearance shortly thereafter may be described in the same way. Perhaps it is the codes, the clues, or the numbers. It may even be the mix tapes. All of these things factor into my adoration of this book, which further benefits from great plotting and pacing. Galloway infuses tension in every line and every step.

I have always enjoyed well-written stories about those who are changed by the presence of others - those unknowing, almost unwilling protagonists who tell readers about a person they knew, be it someone they loved, lost, or wish had (or hadn't) known. Consider Nick in The Great Gatsby, one of my all-time favorite books.(1) Thanks to Galloway's intriguing writing, As Simple as Snow has a narrator who will draw you in, just as Anna drew him in, but his name is unknown. You will get to know him quickly, and you will grow to care about him, Anna, and other residents of their town.

The video trailer utilizes absolutely perfect imagery as the narrator reads the opening pages of the book. Watch it at the website or YouTube and I'll bet you want to run out and get the book immediately -- as you should.

Something else to note: Though the main characters are teenagers, this book is not categorized as teen fiction. It is typically shelved in the mystery section of bookstores, though those without genre breakouts may place it in general fiction/literature. Has this helped or hurt the book's sales or its reach? I do not know its sales figures, but I do think it could have been cross-marketed and published in YA as well. I have no idea how many people have read it, but I think that more people should. If you read this post, I certainly hope that you will give it a try.

...and after you read As Simple as Snow, please read Paper Towns, and then we'll talk.

I don't want to give too much of Snow away here. For additional hints and thoughts, read my review of As Simple as Snow at my blog, Bildungsroman.

(1) I'd love to revisit The Great Gatsby with other readers. I plan to discuss it in my GuysLitWire post for September. If you're interested, please leave a comment here or below this post.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Any Small Goodness

Reviewed by Steven Wolk

I was a suburban kid. I grew up in a very white and affluent suburb of Chicago. All of my friends were Just Like Me. My grandmother lived on the north side of the city. My grandfather owned two gas stations in Chicago that, in those days, actually repaired cars. And my great uncle had a flower shop in the city. So I certainly spent some time within the city limits, but those neighborhoods didn’t seem that far away from my suburban enclave. As a kid I rarely, if ever, ventured deeper into the city. I did not have a clue what life was like beyond the borders of my family. Specific memories have dissipated, but I’m sure as I progressed through the years I had stereotypes about how the "other half" lived – especially since I rarely interacted with the other half. When I did see them, on TV or in movies, the images just perpetuated the stereotypes. And how much has changed? Today, when affluent white suburban America sees a story of poor and working poor urban America, how often are those stories about the hope and goodness in those communities?

That is exactly what Any Small Goodness is about. Yes, there are gangs and shootings and struggle, but the heart of this short novel surrounds a small, intact, and loving Mexican-American family working hard each day to survive and be happy in the barrio of LA. The story is told by Arturo, or "Turo" for short. Each chapter of the book focuses on one person in his community who has a "small goodness." In fact, the book could be read as a collection of short stories, similar to the wonderful work of Gary Soto in his books Living Up the Street, Baseball in April, and Petty Crimes. The tales told in each chapter are connected by Turo's quest to find his own goodness, his own way to give something back to the people. And they’re connected by Turo's ability to see and appreciate the goodness embedded in the chaos around him.

Tony Johnston’s writing is luscious; like reading prose poetry. One chapter opens with this sentence: "My hair wakes up stupid." Another begins with, "The LA’s a swindle of a river." While some readers may feel the book is weighed down by too many romantic similes, I take the complete opposite view. I love the romance of this story and I can reread the similes all day: "I hear a long, moist sigh then. Like the breath of a tired teakettle." Or this: "Unbelievable! Coach strolls into the gym – in a suit! A Tie! (Off to one side, like a skinny, wind-flopped flag). He usually wears grey oversized sweats that make him look like a melting elephant."

And there are the names. I have this thing for cool names for characters. It’s not just the names; it’s how they sound on the tongue and the images they bring to mind. This story has Leo Love and Ms. Cloud and Coach Tree and Mama Dulce and Miss Pringle. But the most important character of all is Turo's father, his Papi, who is calm and quiet and wise. When gangbangers taunt him one day, Turo thinks, "How can they menace my father, this beautiful man? He’s the real macho, I believe, strong enough to be gentle."

Sometimes the best gifts come in small packages. At 129 pages Any Small Goodness is a wisp of a book. It is its own small goodness, teeming with hope and insight. I’d like to think that if I had read this book when I was a kid, walking the streets and parks of my suburban life just as Turo walks the barrio, that my eyes might have been opened just a bit to the vital power of everyday small acts and the beauty that thrives, buried amidst the disorder we call life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

So you want to rule the world ... please don't be stupid when you do

Look, I’ll be frank. It’s not easy getting to be the ruler of the world.

It’s going to take some brains. And once you are ruling the world, we’d all appreciate it if you did it wisely.

Yes, I know you already are a genius, but you’ll need to sharpen it up a little to do better than Napoleon, Stalin, Danny Kaye and Steve Jobs.

It’s time you did some heavy thinking…

Try some Martin Gardner....

Any Martin Gardner book you can get your hands on is going to help.

If you can get your hands on something like: "The Colossal Book of Mathematics: Classic Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems," you’ll be in good shape.

Before I go any further, let me note that I got a C in Algebra/Trig in 11th grade, so I'm no math dude. But Martin Gardner has a way of making it interesting.

I’m also a fan of “Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to puzzle and delight.” Everything is laid out in a very friendly fashion, complete with cartoons. But the simple language just make the insane complexities of reality easier to not grasp.

Here's a rather silly example:
Here we have a list of all the dull people and a list of all the interesting people.
Somewhere on the list is the dullest person in the world.
But this makes him or her very interesting. So we have to move the dullest person to the other list. someone else will be the dullest person, and he or she too will be interesting. So eventually everyone becomes interesting. Or do they?

Gardner will take you from there to time paradoxes, Einstein's thoughts about the nature of the universe, tachyons and carnival rip-offs.

If you like a little more plot with your deep thoughts, try “The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix.”

And if you’re ready to spring into action, try the Game of Life.

One of Gardner’s many services to mankind was spreading the word about this non-game. Birth, death, predation, evolution, extinction -- it’s all part of Life and it’s all run by a few simple rules.

I’m old enough that I used to try to run Life simulations on graph paper. You can go to this site and make your own or run those created by your fellow geniuses.

Yes, Life is its own world. And you can set it in motion easily enough. But rule it? Make it work the way you want? You’ll have to be really smart to do that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hermit crabs from hell & more

Cabinet of Wonders had an excellent post up last week on menageries that touched on all sorts of fascinating histories of collecting animals. They mentioned Jean-Batistry Oudry who painted exotic animals in the 18th century. There is a book out on his work, Oudry's Painted Menagerie, that I highly recommend for readers interested in natural history. It's gorgeous (Oudry was phenomenally talented) and also filled with more of the information on menageries that the Cabinet of Wonders post touches on.

Following up on that post, today we get a look at what strange animals could appear in a modern day menagerie (if you really wanted to "outzoo the zoo"). There are a ton of interesting pictures of real animals(Yeti Lobsters? Ligers?) but that Coconut Crab is officially the most terrifying thing I've ever seen.

If we turn out backs it would eat us, I just know it.

Jules and Kelly weigh in on Frankenstein Takes the Cake

I'm happy to be joined today by Kelly Fineman of Writing and Ruminating in discussing the new book from Adam Rex, Frankenstein Takes the Cake (Which is Full of Funny Stuff Like Rotting Heads and Giant Gorillas and Zombies Dressed as Little Girls and Edgar Allan Poe. The Book, We Mean -- Not the Cake), the sequel to 2006's Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (And Other Stories You're Sure to Like, Because They're All About Monsters, And Some of Them Are Also About Food. You Like Food, Don't You? Well, All Right Then) -- both books published by Harcourt.

As I noted a few weeks ago at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, if you haven't read that prequel, well there's a hole in your life too big and awkward for us to even address. But Kelly has joined me today to talk about the new poetry anthology, so let's get right to it...
Jules: So, Kelly, did you just fall in love with this sequel or what? I dare say it’s even funnier than the first one. The opening sequence, “The Mother-in-Law of Frankenstein Makes Wedding Plans” had me laughing out loud. And the art work: I swoon. Such a wide range of styles again and his attention to detail, which I love. And I’m impressed at Adam’s ability to make constructions like rhyming speech-bubble dialogue (to once again reference the opening bit) work. It never seemed forced or off-meter, though it could have easily in the hands of a lesser poet.
Look at me. I’m all over the place here. Adam Rex’s books do this to me. I need to focus. Do you want to talk about the rhymes for a moment, since I consider you a Poetry Goddess?
The Tofillager from Frankenstein Takes the CakeKelly: I agree with you, Jules, that this book is a tremendous amount of fun. Although some of the metres in the book aren't actually "perfect" (e.g., the Message from Adam Rex at the start of the book and a few other places), the inventiveness of the work more than makes up for any deficiencies in metre. As you noted, he pulls off conversations in rhyme without making the conversations feel particularly forced (as in the first poem, "The Mother-in-Law of Frankenstien Makes Wedding Plans"), poem parodies ("An Edgar Allen Poem" - more on that in a minute), haiku ("Kaiju Haiku"), wedding vows and more. One of the things I adored about Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (and that kids really responded well to) were the Phantom of the Opera song parodies. The Phantom didn't make it into this book. In his place, we have three pages with Edgar Allen Poe, all written roughly in the style of his best-known poem, "The Raven." I thought the poems were interesting and fun, and the incorporation of the Raven, who provides for each a different three-syllable rejoinder that rhymes with "Nevermore" sent them straight over the top for me. Plus, I love the gloomy expression of Edgar's face, and I particularly adore the Raven, who goes stomping off across the endpapers at the back of the book, getting the final, final word if you lift the inside flap of the book jacket, although Rex's haiku about himself in lieu of author information completely cracked me up:

He knows Frankenstein's
the doctor, not the monster.
Enough already.

Although many of the poems could be read separately from their illustrations, doing so would be a complete disservice. Rex's clever forays into the incorporation of actual photographs (which I understand to have been manipulated) in "Off the Top of My Head: The Official Blog of the Headless Horseman" blew me away. And the variety in illustration style in this book lives up to and surpasses the original volume.
Jules: Did you notice on the copyright page that part of his media listed is---along with pencil, charcoal, oils, and Photoshop with a Wacom tablet---“probably some other things.” I tell ya, readers are always rewarded when they read the fine print of his copyright pages. Anyway, yes, I adore the variety of styles used here – Adam can really wow with his detailed, lush oil paintings and then nail the humor, say, of a more cartoon-esque panel of paintings or drawings. I think it was Betsy Bird in her review of this title who said that the “Dracula Jr. Wants a Big-Boy Coffin” spread was the best tribute to Charles Schultz she’s seen in a long time, and I have to agree with that. And then he incorporates photography into this one, as you have pointed out. And, yes, speaking to your point about how he created those spreads, Kelly, we have a post over at 7-Imp about it, which can be read here.
I have to say, in response to what you said about the humor in the book, that this moment from the first book made me laugh out loud in a particularly embarrassing kind of way. It still does.
D'oh! It’s Dracula’s wink and the finger gun that gets me every time. So, I was particularly happy to see his return in this sequel – as Frankenstein’s best man, no less. And then to see he’s still a lovable goof? Even better. In this one, he’s milling around at the wedding reception and inadvertently eats some garlic bread, which results in some hyperventilating and a search for his inhaler (or “inhaluh,” as he’s choking at this point). “Vhat became of the list that I gave to your bosses? / I’m not to have garlic, wheat, peanuts, or crosses!”

The Best Man at Frankenstein's wedding He’s certainly not an original character to this book, but I was so happy to see his return that it’s my favorite part of the book.

Incidentally, I know that Betsy also said---in her 2009 Newbery and Caldecott prediction post from June---“I know that silly or funny works of art never get the awards they deserve (and I'm including ALL awards in that generalization) but can't we just forget the hoits and the toits and give {Adam Rex} some lovin'? Puh-leeze?” When I read that, I think I did a cheer. I might have even thrust my arms forward and waggled my fingers in the air in that odd way that cheerleaders do.
What say you to that notion, Kelly? There have been some great picture books this year, but Adam’s work always seems to surprise readers and….well, I’ll speak for myself here: It renews my faith in picture books sometimes. One thing I realized when Eisha and I had our recent blog identity crisis was that when you see tons of new picture books on a regular basis, a lot of them start to look the same to you. But then an Adam Rex book comes along, and each time it looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen before. And in a good way, of course.
Kelly: I say that I'm hopeful, but not entirely optimistic. Funny films don't usually win Oscars, funny books don't usually win fancy stickers. Never mind that funny is much harder to do successfully than serious, whether we're talking acting or writing. Also, I wonder whether this book, which contains excellent poems and illustrations, accidentally shoots itself in the foot on the awards scene by including a) funny poems, b) funny illustrations and c) illustrations in a wide variety of styles. I worry that by showing so much range and versatility within one book, Adam Rex has inadvertently become something like the women of The View, where judges like several of the hosts (or illustrations), but not others, and divide themselves in such a way that the nod goes to someone else, like maybe Suzy Lee for Wave (assuming that it counts as an American picture book, which I think it does), or to Kadir Nelson for We Are the Ship. But I digress.
What I'd like to do is talk about why this picture book is a good read for teens, besides being pee-your-pants funny. I'm starting a list:
  1. It contains sophisticated references to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," a poem many teens have read or will read. And the poem parodies are funny.

  2. The Headless Horseman blog entries demonstrate the power of Photoshop, a program used by many teens for their own Facebook and MySpace entries. Also, they give excellent ideas for how to lay out a blog entry. Also, they might get kids thinking about making their own papier maché pumpkin heads and hitting the town. Plus, the Headless Horseman blog entries are funny.

  3. The Frankenstein monster will be familiar to many teens, some of whom have read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and some of whom have seen Mel Brooks's movie, Young Frankenstein. Also, the monster's problems with his fiancée and her mother are the sorts of relationship issues that teens deal with all the time. And the issue with the Flower Girl will be familiar to any teens with younger siblings, or who have done any babysitting. Plus, the Frankenstein wedding poems are funny.

Got more to add?
Jules: I’ll add simply this, which touches on what I promised to cover once a month over here at Guys Lit Wire: Teens who are interested in art will get a lot out of Adam’s books. I’m a big believer in using picture books---some, of course (more sophisticated ones. I’m not talkin’ If You Give a Mouse a Cookie)---with teens, books like this, which are cutting-edge illustration on display. I want to be a high school art teacher for five minutes, just to show them this book, share the humor, talk to students about the variety of styles, variety of media used. But then I’d have to go back to being work-at-home me, ‘cause if I were their art teacher, they’d all suffer, as I have barely a shred of artistic talent.

Well, Kelly, I think we’ve covered a lot. ‘Twas fun to talk poetry with you. Quoth the raven, “Any more?”
Kelly: I'll defer to Adam Rex:

Jules, it's been fun working with you!

Monday, August 25, 2008


This weekend, Seattle is Mecca for gamers. The metaphor might not extend to people actually praying in the direction of Seattle (although I wouldn't rule that out) but it is true that gamers of every kind--from casual console players to hard-core boardgame geeks--are traveling from around the world to attend the Penny Arcade Expo, a.k.a. PAX.

PAX is the largest gamer festival in the U.S., the spiritual successor to the now-more-corporatized E3, and it's just a mad-crazy three-day lineup of "freeplay" games, huge LAN combats, exhibitor demos, a variety of tournaments and competitions, panels, movies, and even concerts--from H.P. Lovecraft tribute band Darkest of the Hillside Thickets to nerdcore godfather MC Frontalot.

So what does all this have to do with books and writing? Well, there's actually some reading going on amidst all the gamer craziness. The latest edition of D&D and many of the creative minds behind it will be well-represented, but here are a few even better (and more traditionally narrative) examples:

  • A reading and a panel with actor--and now accomplished writer--Wil Wheaton, who has been called "an almost Mark Twain for the geek crowd." (What, you don't read his blog?)
  • Panels on "Game Criticism and Old School Journalism," "How to Make the World Notice Your Video Game Blog," and "Writing for Games." (Love the description for that last one: "Bowser takes Peach, Mario chases after Bowser, Bowser falls into some lava, The End. It wasn’t long ago when writing and storytelling were at the bottom of the priority list, but as these industry pros will tell you, the tide has changed and compelling story arcs and tight dialogue are all being used to create and sell games.")

  • Many chances to meet and hear from Gabe and Tycho, the genii behind the very sharp and literate Penny Arcade comic (anthologized for your convenience if you need to catch up).

(Cross-posted to Omnivoracious.)

Alice as you have never seen her (and a graphic novel must read even if you hate Wonderland)

If you haven't seen Bryan Talbott's Alice in Sunderland, you are missing the graphic novel experience of a lifetime. To say it is gorgeous is an understatement and the art is only part of it anyway. This historical look at where Lewis Carroll was from and how the story of Alice in Wonderland came together and ten thousand other things that seem to have nothing to do with it but are really all interconnected is just flat out stupendous. I wrote about it earlier this year at my site. Here's a bit:

When I first saw it, I thought Alice in Sunderland was a variation on the traditional Alice story; not an adaption or retelling but some kind of visual twist on the classic. Okay I was wrong - I was really really wrong. I have never read anything like this book and I can't imagine the kind of creative mind that put it together. It's a history of England, focusing on one specific section (Sunderland - in the northeast section of the country) and then folding into that the story of Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family and how they converged resulting the Alice in Wonderland. But none of that explains how sumptuous this novel is. The visuals are stunning - STUNNING - and the way author Bryan Talbot moves between drawing styles and back and forth from illustration to photography to collage is so inspiring.

He makes you want to create beautiful and interesting things.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Keeping It Real With FZ

Earlier this year a co-worker came to me with what seemed like a simple question: what was out there for her fourteen year old son who spent all his days playing drums, listening to classic rock of the 1970s, and wanted to know more about music, but not what passes for music writing in the magazines these days. Her son wanted something that wasn't gossip, or a band profile filled with pictures. He wanted something real.

And I opened my mouth and I uttered the name Frank Zappa and her hand instantly went up in protest. "I don't need him going there just yet." The problem as, her son already was there. He had been consuming an aural diet of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors (among others) and had done enough research to know he wanted something more, something substantial.

And I cannot think of anything more substantial for a young mind interested in a career in rock and roll music than The Real Frank Zappa Book by FZ with Peter Occhiogrosso. Here's a guy who, in his life, testified before the Senate against music censorship, was invited to Czechoslovakia by President Václav Havel to serve as consultant for the government on trade and tourism, introduced (for better or worse) Valley Girl speak into popular culture, and scared folks so badly that his one Grammy award is for Best Rock Instrumental Performance on an instrumental album called Jazz From Hell that was forced to carry an "explicit lyrics" sticker.

I'd say a teen with a non-vanilla interest in music could learn a lot from this guy.

"I detest 'love lyrics.' I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on 'love lyrics.'"

FZ has a lot to say, about a lot of subjects, and whether you agree with him or not it's hard to just ignore what he says. That quote about love lyrics comes from his account of an album of faux doo wop called Cruising with Ruben and the Jets. In this briefest section of a chapter he discusses how MGM failed to follow-through on a contract, how some DJ's thought the album was really a doo wop album and then pulled it because they felt duped, then he connects what he set out to accomplish along the lines of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (and even included a bit of it in one of the recordings), sets out the formulaic chord progressions of popular hits of the time, pokes fun at the 'love lyric,' and explains how it "creates a semantic corruption" in the listener. He does all that in a mere two and a half pages.

There's more. A drunken encounter with John Wayne. Lessons in how the record industry used to screw over musicians (some may still). Why he didn't drink or do drugs (he did smoke, which he considered a food) and why no one ever believed him. Politics and religion are attacked on all fronts, just as they are in his music, and in such a way that it makes it hard to defend them. Like Lenny Bruce, he knew how to talk dirty and influence people.

FZ freely admits up front that he talks dirty. He uses language deftly to both express himself and to provoke thought in others. And because of these things he scares people. But it's a good scary, the kind of scary that can help open a closed mind, or at the very least makes a good argument that when the world thinks you're crazy maybe you're on to something. FZ posed the question "Does humor belong in music?" but left it to the individual to decide. He considered himself a "practical conservative" who always urged people to vote, but the way he lays it out you'd be hard-pressed to find a traditional conservative thought. He disdained hypocrisy and believed in treating children with the same respect as adults. Without being didactic, FZ presents in himself a portrait of what it means to be a driven artist, a musician, and a non-conformist adult. What more could a teen want from an autobiographical pastiche?

Yes, he can write a mini opera about yellow snow, and it can be funny and on the verge of obscene, but he took his musicianship seriously. In his lifetime a handful of his compositions were performed by classical outfits -- the Ensemble Moderne of Germany and the London Symphony Orchestra -- and a sizable number of musicians apprenticed with him throughout his dizzying band line-ups and went on to fame either on their own or with others: Guitarists Steve Vai and Adrian Belew (Talking Heads, David Bowie, Kind Crimson) and Warren Cuccurullo (Duran Duran); bassists Shuggie Otis (Cal Tjader, Etta James) and Patrick O'Hearn (Mark Isham, Missing Persons); jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty; drummers Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons) and Aynsley Dunbar (Journey); keyboardists George Duke and Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music); singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo and Eddie, aka The Turtles). You start tracking the "family tree" of FZ's direct and indirect influences and you could make a living doing so.

You say you have a teen who wants to read something real about music, in theory and as a lifestyle? I suppose they could read Rolling Stone or Mojo, but why sell them short. Show them FZ's world and really open their eyes.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"I never believed it would be me."

On May 28, 2002, Napoleon Beazley was executed by the state of Texas. He was the 19th person executed in the United States for crimes committed as a juvenile since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Not until March 2005, with the US Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons (No. 03-633), did it become unconstitutional to execute offenders who were under the age of eighteen when their crimes had been committed.
"The jury came back ten against two in favor of life without parole. The judge overruled it and sentenced me to death." - Roy Burgess Jr.
The title of Susan Kuklin's No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row and the description on the book jacket are a bit misleading since only two of the men who speak were actually sentenced to death. But I think this actually works in favor of the book, since it gives voice to people, besides the convicts, who have also been affected by the legality of the death penalty.

No Choirboy includes few statistics, and you won't find dry arguments debating the pros and cons of the issue, either. Instead, there are six chapters, each told by people whose lives were changed forever as a result of murder and the death penalty. Roy Burgess Jr. was sixteen and Nanon Williams seventeen when they were arrested for the murders they were ultimately convicted of, convictions that resulted in them both spending years on death row. At age fourteen, Mark Melvin killed a man. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole. Napoleon Beazley's mother and younger brother discuss his life, and their lives after he was executed. William Jenkins was sixteen when he was murdered, his brother was thirteen and his sister, ten. The family requested that the prosecutor not ask the jury trying William's killer for the death penalty. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, teaching law and fighting the death penalty.
"He was executed three days after I graduated high school. I went to my graduation. I was a zombie. I can't remember nothing about the graduation. I don't even know what I did with the diploma. I can't remember who was there. I can't even remember who gave me a graduation gift. I was a walking zombie." - Jamaal Beazley
As you'd expect from a book about capital punishment, No Choirboy is an intense, powerful read. All of the first person accounts are honest, sometimes brutally so. While a few of the subjects are limited in what they are able to say about the murders that led to the death sentences for legal reasons, they don't hide their shortcomings or mistakes when it comes to other topics. A few photographs and images, either taken by Kuklin or provided by the folks she interviewed, are interspersed through every chapter, adding to the immediacy of the first-person accounts and making them seem even more personal.

There is a definite anti-death penalty slant that runs throughout the book, giving it a cohesion that might otherwise be lacking in a collection of first-person accounts. However, even though I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, I think it would have been interesting to also get the perspective of a death penalty supporter, one who had lost a loved one to murder, with the murderer still on death row or already executed. But No Choirboy is still worth reading, a thoughtful look at the death penalty that hits home in ways that mere statistics can't. And if you're a death penalty opponent to begin with, you should definitely check this book out.

* Title quote from interview with Nanon Williams, p. 92.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two versions of teens in [slightly] future America

The future of American society is the subject of two recent science fiction novels on government control and security: Nick Mamatas’ Under My Roof and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. In Doctorow’s novel the Department of Homeland Security now wields a fearsome amount of power on our home shores. For Mamatas the country is embroiled in an endless array of overseas wars to “protect America’s freedoms”. In each case young male protagonists find themselves caught up in events beyond their control and forced to make decisions about how they want to live and what sort of country they want to live in.

Doctorow has written the far more earnest book. There is little to laugh about in Little Brother and in fact the tension builds until a scene of torture where it is clear that the Constitution is long gone in place of a more dictatorial “freedom through security” approach. The plot focuses on Marcus, a teen who knows his way around computers big time and gets caught in a web thrown by local law enforcement in the minutes after a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Held against his will by the Dept of Homeland Security, he and his friends are terrorized by government interrogators only to be released after days of suffering and humiliation. Once free he soon learns that in an effort to keep the city safe, its residents are being tracked and traced in an untold number of ways. Marcus decides to fight back and much of the book follows his efforts as the unofficial leader of hundreds, if not thousands, of other teens who perform all manner of technological tricks to foil DHS’s efforts to control everyone through spying. What drives Marcus is the disappearance of his best friend Darryl who was lost the night of the attack and last seen injured and being taken into custody.

There are most certainly holes in Doctorow’s plot and more than a few moments where readers have to suspend their belief, not on the advanced technology he describes but in the character actions. There are no shades of grey here – the villains are really really bad guys who seem driven to imprison people for no good reason. While the Guantanamo parallels are obvious, these are American teenagers who don’t have criminal records and it all gets a bit hard to believe. There are also a few other plot points involving the missing Darryl and the collapse of Marcus's supposedly tight group of friends that seem to exist purely to keep Marcus moving in certain directions but do not stand up on their own. Doctorow is aiming high here in a way other than plot though; he wants a novel of big fearsome ideas to make his readers think. He suggests that just as we have allowed TSA to control us in lines at the airport, and DHS to craft the mother of all terrorism watch lists, and the President to build an honest to God gulag on foreign shores for the sole purpose of circumventing U.S. law – well, we also might someday let a lot of innocent Americans be alternately controlled and terrorized on a daily basis because the government says it is for the best. This is Doctorow's version of a future America and if he has to hit you over metaphorical head with his novel to get your attention, then really, that's what he's willing to do.

Clearly, the book is not perfect but it is a powerful thrill ride in which a group of smart teenagers are the only ones willing to stand up and take chances to make things right. In that respect, Doctorow has pulled off quite a coup; it’s not often that teens can be realistic heroes; they usually need magic, James Bondian gadgets or adult foils that are stratospherically stupid. Little Brother succeeds for its audience because in different way you can see parts of this book happening and when Marcus makes his stand you want him to succeed – even if his reasons for being in that position in the first place are a bit of a stretch.

In Under My Roof Herbert becomes an unwitting accomplice when his father, suffering from multiple frustrations, pops a cork and builds a small nuclear device which he then stores in a garden gnome for safe keeping. He declares their Long Island home as the new state of “Weinbergia” and henceforth independent from the U.S. What follows is the faxing of greetings and offers of peace with countries all over the world and discussions with the neighbors about the gnome and its trigger which Mr. Weinberg happily carries around. Soldiers soon show up at the door, along with the press, one of whom becomes a happy "hostage", and rather quickly a lot of other people who are fed up the country find their way to NY. They ask if they can "emigrate" to Weinbergia and soon Herbert is sharing the bathroom with a lot of people he doesn’t know and holding press conferences and very carefully mowing the lawn (where the gnome still resides).

As an added twist Herbert is telepathic and filled with the thoughts of everyone around him. The telepathy is not a distraction from the plot; it is part of what makes Herbert a very quirky protagonist and provides him with a chance to one up the adults. This ability is critical when a small group of Weingbergians make a midnight run to a nearby gas station to assuage some chocolaty cravings and things get ugly in an unexpected way.

Mamatas does an excellent balancing job in Under My Roof between the political story, which is all about Mr. Weinberg's very serious frustrations with how the government has been running the country, the domestic struggle Herbert faces as he is stuck between his separated parents. Slowly, he develops a growing awareness that people really do have the power to change the country. It is almost as if everyone has been saying and feeling and doing what the government wants for so long in his world that they’ve forgotten that it is all about them – every decision the government makes is to one degree or another all about them. (This would be an "aha" moment for all us.) Herbert gets this and in a slightly more off balance way, so does his father. Their relationship, which is where Mamatas enjoys some of his funnier moments, is key to the story’s success and manages to make this thoroughly off beat futuristic tale definitely relatable to present day coming-of-age stories.

In the end I think Mamatas has pulled off something wonderful with Herbert’s story; he gives readers a taut political SF thriller that manages to be equal parts suspenseful and humorous with a good dose of goofy family charm throw in. While Doctorow’s book has gained a lot of attention I think Under My Roof has flown under the radar but there is a lot of food for thought in this one and a much more realistic portrayal of America. You can't dismiss Mamatas as easily as Doctorow - his book lives in that grey region Little Brother so casually disregards and it is because of that level of realism that I think it is a more quietly powerful and substantive book. In short, Little Brother makes for edge of your seat reading to be sure, but Under My Roof is one that should not be missed.

What's wrong with this picture?

Water Baby, the MINX graphic novel by Ross Campbell, has its problems. Ostensibly about a teen surfer girl who loses her leg in a shark attack, the book spends too much time fixating on her ex-boyfriend, an Abercrombie-and-Fitch-hot loser whose presence so dominates, the book becomes a quest to jettison the bastard. I loathed this book, and why it got under my skin so much has everything to do with being a guy but probably not in the ways you might think.

I have this friend Krista who writes for a local paper—book reviews and such. I said to her recently, “Any review copies of graphic novels you’ve got at the paper, you know, that are just sitting around? I’ll gladly take them off your hands.”

Sounds like a polite way of saying “gimme,” but there you have it. I could justify it by saying that she offered up the books. “There’s a whole closet of galleys there, piles of books for the taking, so if you want anything Justin…”

Still, kind of a jerk move on my part.

She brings me two books: New York Four, by Brian Wood (whose twelve issue Demo, a reinvention of the super power story, was just awesome) with art by Brian Maruca, and Water Baby. Both are part of DC Comics’ clunky, yet at-times endearing MINX graphic novel line, a series of books intended to compete with shojo manga for a tween to teen girl audience. A semi-success so far, at least in terms of the quality of the books I’ve seen from the line—I couldn’t tell you if they are reaching their target audience, but I’m a little dubious.

I liked New York Four—it’s no Demo, or Northlanders (his kick-ass Viking saga), and probably not the cup of tea of this target audience, but then again, I come from a time when you could read every graphic novel that came out in a given week or month, and you did, no matter what it was about. Nowadays that’s an impossible task, and besides, the range of subject and style is so broad, why would you?

(That’s a good thing, right? A world in which graphic novels come out that are, by all measures, good, but nevertheless something I’m not interested in? On the other hand—that this kind breadth and depth of catalog seemed unimaginable as recently as ten years ago? A little sad.)

As for Water Baby, this is what Krista said:

“Justin, I got some comics from the paper for review, but this one? It’s just gross.” I tried to probe “gross”—what did she mean? I knew some basics of the plot: surfer girl loses leg to shark, but beyond that, not much. And I’d been looking forward to seeing something from Ross Campbell, since I’d picked up his book Wet Moon a million times but never purchased. I’d heard good things about it, and there was something about his art that intrigued me, but all I ever saw was the second volume, so I passed.

Krista never could give me more than “I don’t know, it’s disgusting.” For me, gross and disgusting are pretty strong terms, synonymous with “makes me want to vomit.” I assumed this is not what she meant, but instead that the book made her feel, to borrow a term from the blogosphere, “squicky.” Specifically, she couldn’t stand the art, which is surprising, because by any measure, Ross Campbell can draw—clean lines, nice crisp inks, what’s the problem?

Here’s another stab at the plot: Brody, bad-ass moody surfer girl, loses her leg in a shark attack. Post attack (how post? Long enough for her to be comfortable walking around with a prosthetic leg. Long enough to have skipped any emotional reaction to having a leg bit off. Other than that? Who knows) she hangs around being moody and bad-assed. Then her ex-boyfriend Jason shows up and hijacks the book by hanging around, crashing on Brody’s couch, bringing girls over and getting so drunk he trashes the place. This leads to the inevitable road-trip to get rid of Jason from the book and, ostensibly, Brody’s life. Along the way he picks up a hitchhiker gal who ends up stealing everything they’ve got, including the car.

I mean, a jerk of all jerks, right? Unequivocal douchebag, to use a John Stewart-ism.

Sure, Campbell’s plot isn’t great, but it’s just weak—not something to get lathered up about. And, while his art is attractive (though this bears coming back to), his comics storytelling skills need improving: he’s awful at transitions of time and place. For instance, it’s entirely unclear how much time has passed from one scene to the next and there are lots of awkward shifts between dreams and the actual narrative. Campbell’s dialogue chokes on crappy attempts at verisimilitude, and his characters demonstrate little emotion other than variations on brooding: anger, pouting, self-doubt—all would be great if this were Brody’s limited emotional range, but it is every character’s emotional range.

And the endless nightmare sequences in which Brody dreams of getting chased by a shark, becoming a shark, or watching sharks eat her friends, and on and on—These aren’t very effective. Unlike the rest of the book, they’ve got great pacing, what little dialogue occurs is taught and effective, and the characters seem to have actual emotions. But for all that, these dreams are merely that: abrupt fantasies that—as the characters get both emotionally and narratively further and further from the shark attack—have little bearing on what’s actually going on.

But for all this mediocrity, what makes it worth ranting about?

Campbell’s art, to me, personifies one of the worst mental traps out there: what I call “nice guy syndrome.” Nice guy syndrome was me in high school to a T. It’s when you think you deserve a girl’s attention just because you’re not a jackass.
Think about it. Every teen movie drives this home: girl is involved with a complete jerk and the entire plot wraps around the desire for her to just see that her best friend/casual acquaintance/local nerd king is a "nice guy" and therefore should be the object of her affection. In reality? The nice guy, he’s got his own problems.

There’s this old Winona Ryder movie, Reality Bites, that exemplifies this for me: Winona Ryder has to choose between sensitive, soulful slacker Ethan Hawke and driven, slick Ben Stiller. What pissed me off is that they’re both self-involved losers and she would have been better off without either of them. But instead, she goes off with Ethan Hawke in the end because, hey, he's better than Ben Stiller.

You know, you've got to be more than just not the worst guy around to qualify as a good friend, let alone boyfriend.

So, what’s this got to do with Water Baby?

Remember how I mentioned that Campbell’s art was so damn attractive? Here’s the thing: according to the words we read, Brody is kind of gross: she doesn’t bathe, she shaves her head, she has a stump of a leg. People treat her like a freak. But Campbell can’t draw this. Instead, he draws her kind of hot, tan and athletic, with a smoothe stump that ends at the knee with absolutely no scarring.

She (and every other teenaged woman in the book, for that matter) rarely wears more than a tank top and panties, or a bikini. And the way the panels are framed force the reader to dwell on her body: despite her tiny size, her full breasts and curvy hips often sit dead center in the panels. Her best friend Lou has an even fuller figure, which seems to create some anxiety on the part of Campbell, with constant shifts of her prominent cleavage around the panel frame.

We first meet Brody on a bathroom break from surfing. She sits on the toilet, bikini bottoms around her ankles, deep in thought, contemplating tasting her own pee. Her t-shirt reads “What a pair.” This then, is what Krista found so gross: the reader is not just reading this story, but is constantly put in a position of voyeur, peeking, leering at Brody, and Lou, and every other teen girl who wanders into frame.

And it’s not just their “girl parts.” Their whole bodies are on display, as it were. Brody hates for people to stare at her stump, but the reader is often directed to look at her stump, dwell on the stump, in the context of the rest of her body: her womanly figure, her barely-there clothing. I know, eww. Right?

About here, even I’m asking myself “am I reading too much into this?” I certainly don’t think Campbell meant for any of Water Baby to read this way. But look at the cover: Brody’s head is cut off (Campbell often frames the female characters only partially in panel, cutting off their heads and legs), her breasts, big and pointy, are dead center, and the only spot of real color on Brody is her yellow bikini bottoms, here doubling as panties, peeking above her shorts. A striking image, to be sure, and interesting, but when taken in the context of page after page of this? Squicky, really.

Remember that hitchhiker I mentioned that Jason picked up? Her boyfriend dumped her and took off with all her stuff, leaving her with nothing but the improbable outfit of a bikini top, some cut-off jeans, a backpack and some hot sun glasses. Like the other women here, her body is the focus of the frame, with well-toned abs that lead to a quick make-out session in the bathroom with Jason before she joins the gang on their road trip.

And Jason, the jerk ex-boyfriend in the story? He’s really unbearable, making passes at Lou, thinking about her breasts, weighing the possibilities of hooking up with every girl in sight. He’s so over the top in his jerkiness, you can’t help but hate him, and sympathize with the girls. And maybe think “What an asshole! I wouldn’t do that—I’m a nice guy.”

And there it is. You get to stare at their bodies for 150 pages because you’re not near the jerk the guy in the story is. But you’re still staring at their bodies, frame after frame.

In the end, that still makes you feel like a jerk.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why you should read Stanislaw Lem

When Stanislaw Lem died, many of the obituaries dwelt on the fact that he had written Solaris, which had been turned into a George Clooney movie.

Now that’s just pitiful, but it’s understandable … because it’s hard to sum up what make’s Lem (arguably) the greatest Science Fiction Writer of All Time. In fact, I find that it’s nearly impossible.

Here’s a man whose brain stretched forward to imagine the beings who had reached the Highest Possible Level of Development - and it’s not pretty. He didn’t foresee the Internet (as far as I know), but did tell us what would happen when information overload hit. He skewered not only his own Communist government, but bureaucracies and governments everywhere.

If I could get you to read just one science fiction author … well, I’d probably send you straight to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide … but after that, I’d loan you a Lem book.

In fact that’s exactly how I got started, a Polish friend who knew I liked Hitchhiker’s sent me a Lem and it blew my mind and has done so repeatedly.

So where should you start?

First of all, skip Solaris. It’s not terrible or anything, but I don’t think it’s as unique or outstanding as his best books.

Maybe you should start with that book my Polish friend gave me, “The Cyberiad.” This is some of the silliest science fiction you’ll ever read, but it’s also some of the smartest. It’s a series of short stories -- Fables for the Cybernetic Age, Lem called them. If I tell you the plots, I’d be missing the point. The point is to turn your brain on high and try to keep up.

Another batch of short stories “The Star Diaries” will provide a similar effect.

From there, novels such as “The Investigation” and “Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” will be less funny and require even deeper thinking on your part.

Note: These books were written in Polish. Translator Michael Kandel performed a series of miracles to turn them into English.

The five most hardcore writers ever

We writers are a pretty pathetic bunch. Life in the comma mines has left most of us pale and bleary eyed with the muscle tone of banana slugs. A scattered few, though, rise above the rest. They stride the Earth, doling out alliteration and ass-whippings in equal measure. These are the five most hardcore writers ever.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Growing up, Hemingway always got picked last for soccer, and he spent the rest of his life making up for it.

During World War I, he joined the ambulance corps. And after a bunch of ninnies signed the Treaty of Versailles, Hemingway bounced around the globe, reporting on the Spanish Civil War and World War II, taking up amateur bull fighting and big game hunting, all in between writing some of the most influential books of the 20th century.

In 1952, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea. Halfway through his acceptance speech, he tore off his shirt and challenged all comers to 12 rounds of bare-knuckle boxing.

Okay, I made that last bit up, but Hemingway is often considered the ultimate manly-man author. Despite all his pomp and bluster, though, he just squeaks into the lowest slot, and that’s mostly because of his fine, luscious beard.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?)

Lots of writers, including Hemingway above, got their start as war correspondents, but not many decided to end their careers that way, and only one did it at age 71.

“Bitter Bierce” was already famous thanks to his short stories and satirical Devil’s Dictionary. (Sample entry: Pray, verb: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.) After the death of his wife, Bierce’s already pessimistic view of human nature darkened to outright misanthropy.

In 1914, the septuagenarian sent a short letter to his niece saying he was headed to Mexico to join Poncho Villa’s revolutionary army, adding, If you hear of my being stood up against a stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia!

And then... Nobody’s sure. Bierce was never heard from again. Most historians assume he got the death he went looking for, either at the hands of federal troops or Villa’s own revolutionaries. Other theories suggest the whole Mexican thing was a ruse, that Bierce actually checked himself into a mental hospital or simply committed suicide. There’s even sketchy accounts of an old hermit, claiming to be Bierce, living in Ciudad Juárez years after his disappearance.

Whatever the truth is, that question mark trailing his death date is about the most hardcore epitaph possible.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

What’s Shakespeare’s most famous line? The one that everybody knows, even if they’ve never even read one of his plays? How about, But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Compare that to a line from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, written several years earlier, when Barnabas sees Abigail on a balcony above him: But stay, what star shines yonder in the east? The lodestar of my life.

So let’s get this out of the way first: When Shakespeare is ripping you off, you’re a damn good writer.

But Marlowe was more than a good writer. Just how much more, nobody really knows.

When long, unexplained absences were going to keep him from graduating, Queen Elizabeth sent a letter to the administrators of Cambridge University, telling them to let Marlowe graduate or else. There’s no clear reason why the queen would pull strings for a shoemaker’s son, but it’s likely Marlowe was a spy, reporting on plots against the throne by French Catholics.

Even after becoming a prodigy of Elizabethan England’s flowering theater scene, Marlowe continued to move through its underworld of criminals and spies, which was flowering just as fast. That would be a full plate for most people, but the man who wrote Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus kept grasping for more. When he was 28, Marlowe was arrested in the Netherlands for attempting to forge money. He got out of that scrape just to be arrested again the next year when anti-royalist tracts were found in his London apartment.

Right before he stood trial as a traitor to the crown, Marlowe was stabbed to death in a bar fight. This time Queen Elizabeth, who’d helped Marlowe graduate a decade earlier, pardoned his killer.

There’s still plenty of unanswered questions about what happened that night, but documents discovered in the 20th century prove the three men Marlowe was drinking with were all involved in espionage too, suggesting Marlowe was assassinated.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Thoreau turned slacking into a higher calling. He spent most of his life bumming around Concord, glorious neck beard flapping in the breeze, spouting things like Read not the sign of the times; read the signs of eternity, Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in, and generally convincing people he was a nice enough guy, just nuttier than squirrel poop.

Their opinion didn’t change much after Thoreau decided he wanted to go to jail. A lifelong abolitionist, Thoreau stopped paying his taxes, refusing to support a government that supported slavery. When the tax collectors came to get the money, Thoreau declared Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for any man is also in prison, and quietly headed off to jail with them.

But wait, you say. Thoreau was a pacifist. He wouldn’t hurt a potato beetle. (Literally. When gardening, he picked the pests off his plants by hand and carried them out to the woods.) He’s not hardcore!

But there are many roads to hardcore-dom, my friends. Thoreau took a rather meandering path, but he got there.

Think about it: You go to prison, it’s your first night, and you’re curious about what your new cell-mates did to wind up there. The first guy says he’s in for armed robbery, another says double homicide. Then, one guy looks up at you with a serene smile and says, “Oh, I’m here voluntarily.”

Now seriously, which one of them are you never turning your back on?

Xenophon (c. 431-355 BC)

Xenophon was a student of Socrates. And since Socrates himself never wrote anything down, it was left to his students, chiefly Plato and Xenophon, to record his teachings.

He was also a mercenary. In 401 BC, he went to Persia and joined Cyrus the Younger in his war against his brother, the Emperor Artaxerxes II. Cyrus was eventually killed in battle. Then Artaxerxes summoned the generals of the Greek army to a peace conference and had them beheaded, leaving the Greeks leaderless, thousands of miles from home, and stranded in enemy territory.

They elected new leaders, Xenophon among them, and made their way to the Black Sea, having to fight every step of the way. Xenophon’s account of their journey was (very) loosely adapted for the big screen in the cult classic The Warriors. So the man who wrote The Apology, one of the pillars of Western thought, also gave the world the Baseball Furies.

They just don't come any more hardcore than that.

(Cross-posted on Kris' blog.)

"He didn't look to me like a writer because he wasn't white," remembers Myers, now 70 years old.

The wonderful Walter Dean Myers interviewed at NPR. More on Myers' latest book, Sunrise Over Fallujah, soon. Meanwhile, here's a bit from the interview:

"The first time I dropped out of school, the counselors asked me what was wrong. ... I wasn't going to tell some teacher that my mom is an alcoholic — I wasn't going to do that," says Myers.

Myers understands that there must be a lot weighing on the minds of the kids at that Bronx detention facility. He shows them old photographs depicting various aspects of African-American life, which he uses to help flesh out the characters in his books. Myers started gathering photos while doing a writing workshop in Jersey City. Today, Myers has over 10,000 of them.

"The kids were writing such negative stuff about themselves that I began to collect photographs to show how beautiful they actually were," he says. "I used the photographs in a number of different books."

During his talk the at the detention center, the kids who slouched in the chairs when he first started speaking lean in to listen. One girl tells Myers that she regrets not being as "book smart" as she wants to be.

"One of the things you can do is start writing," he tells her. "What you're saying — other young people want to hear [it]. If you're interested, I am."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Higher Learning #3

Welcome to the August Higher Learning column! In Higher Learning, College Guys talk about what they're reading, what they read in high school, and what books are important to them now. Since it's still summer, I held a cyber interview with Ben, one of my first-year advisees who will soon be a second year student at Grinnell College.

Ben is interested in Political Science, Economics, and International Affairs. He's also a big reader, who keeps up with book news and reviews. Ben was born in California, spent his some of his Middle School years in North Carolina, and returned to California in the seventh grade. Thanks for talking to Guys Lit Wire, Ben!

Kelly Herold: What are you reading at this very moment?

Ben: At this very moment, I am working on a non-fiction book titled The Splendid Exchange by William J. Bernstein. It’s a historical analysis of the evolution of globalization and how increased interconnectivity between different geographic areas and cultures has affected the world as a whole.

Kelly: Is The Splendid Exchange typical of the books you like to read?

Ben: It is typical of books I like to read, which are very simply books that pique my interest, which is really a broad way of saying that I enjoy books from every part of the literary spectrum, from non-fiction to fantasy to science fiction.

Kelly: Okay, let's go back to Middle School. What were you reading in, say, sixth or seventh grade?

Ben: Wow, that’s a while back to think. At that point, I remember I was heavily in a fantasy stage. I was always a pretty good reader, and my choices then reflected that, I think. I was big into thick fantasy tomes, such as the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, the multiple Shannara trilogies by Terry Brooks, as well as some less hefty volumes, such as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Oh, and Harry Potter. Everyone in my grade literally grew up with him- we were 12 when he was, and graduated high school when he conquered Voldemort in book 7. I feel his character will always irrevocably belong to my age cohort.

Kelly: What was the first life-changing book you read? A book that made you think 'Wow' for the first time when reading?

Ben: The first life-changing book I read was undoubtedly The Giver by Lois Lowry. A mix of Brave New World and 1984, it contained some seriously heavy topics, such as eugenics and dystopian futures, for a 6th or 7th grader. However, Lowry must be given credit for not making it depressing or overly serious; I remember enjoying it thoroughly. It was the first book that I read that made me realize that novels can make serious points while still having an enjoyable story line.

Kelly: What about High School? What did you read for school and what did you think about required reading?

Ben: High School is trickier to remember. I remember hating the literary curriculum for my 9th and 10th grade English classes. 10th grade especially was full of junky American literary works; such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, Yellow Raft in Blue Water, as well as other over-serious and underwhelming wastes of paper. There were a few good ones though; I enjoyed As I lay Dying in 10th grade, as well as Othello in 9th.

The curriculum in 11th and 12th grade more than made up for it; we read some fantastic books. From 11th some of my favorites were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Slaughterhouse 5, Martin Eden and Crime and Punishment, all of which I loved. The curriculum in 12th grade was more classically focused, but still very enjoyable. We read the Odyssey, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, No Exit, Waiting for Godot and a few others, the names of which escape me currently. So in short: loved the required reading in 11th and 12th, hated it in 9th and 10th.

Kelly: Did you do much reading for fun when you were in high school? What did "reading for fun" mean to you?

Ben: I read extensively for pleasure in high school. I retained my love of fantasy, but also explored some other genres. The series that was most influential and time consuming was Patrick O’Brian’s excellent Master and Commander series. At 20 books long, it consumed a good chunk of my pleasure reading time in 10th and 11th grades, although I still reach for it today when I need something to relax.

Kelly: You read a lot of serious literature, including non fiction. What do you read for fun--when at the beach, for example?

Ben: Honestly, I still find serious non-fiction fun- my beach read over Spring Break was Alan Greenspan’s excellent memoir The Age of Turbulence. However, it’s usually something more along the lines of Catch 22, which is my favorite book. It is eternally bookmarked, as I am always in the process re reading it in my spare time. Other pleasure reads recently have been by Tom Wolfe- I just finished Bonfire of the Vanities the other week, and have The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test teasing me to start it.

Kelly: Okay, last question: Young Adult literature--ever heard of it? What is Young Adult literature?

Ben: I have heard of young adult literature. I think of it as books that fill a niche in between the chapter books of youth and the more serious novels of adulthood. Usually, in my mind, it has themes that deal with the change from childhood to adulthood, that kids in that age range (lets say 12-15?) can empathize with.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Complex and Quiet Life of a Golf Prodigy

Golf is an odd game. It looks deceptively simple, yet so much can go wrong athletically from addressing the small white ball, to backswing, to forward motion, to strike and launch. Professionals are frustrated by mistakes as much as amateurs. This is what makes the sport of golf interesting. Golf is also a game of etiquette, most often a game of privilege, and sometimes a place with unspoken truths and whispered secrets. All of these facets of golf are explored in A Gentleman’s Game, written by Tom Coyne.

Timmy Price is the son of Irish-American parents living in the Delaware side of the Philadelphia suburbs who are trying to find their place within the lower segment of New Water’s wealthy set. Mr. Price is one of 350 members of the Fox Chase Country Club. His son was blessed with a natural athletic gift. Timmy can hit a golf ball. The novel opens with the perfect way of describing this gift, “By the time I was thirteen, I was pure.”

Coyne explores through Timmy’s eyes the quiet physical challenge of mastering golf and it’s many intricacies. The book also examines the way that such a gift separates a boy from his peers, the pressure it puts on a young kid trying to play a game, and the static that it creates between a father who has dedicated much of his adult life trying to capture just a slight glimpse of what comes so easily to his son. All of this would be enough for any novel, but author Tom Coyne pours more rich elements into this book. It’s these added layers to this story that make it rise above being just a good golf book.

Country clubs are not just populated with the comfortably rich. There are families struggling to make things work, wealthy men and women who take improper advantage of their place in that world of privilege, and a barely visible working class carrying the golf bags and drinks in crystal glasses. From the caddy hole where he works to the driving range where he rubs elbows with the rich, Timmy sees all of these people interact for the first time. The sometimes beautiful and more often ugly people he watches reveal to him some painful truths. This is a powerful novel because we watch, through prose as pure as a prodigy’s golf swing, how learning to live with these truths, making his own choices, and negotiating what is the right thing to do makes Timmy one of the better characters to discover in coming-of-age fiction.

Certainly, this book is full of golf. You don’t have to love or know the game to enjoy the book, but there are things that will make the reading experience richer if you do know the game. When you’re done with the book, there’s a movie version you might find in a video store or on Netflix. The book is much better than the movie (as is usually the case), but the film follows the plot and setting admirably. If you’re interested in how a novel needs to be compressed in order to be made into a movie, then watching the DVD is worthwhile. Otherwise, skip the movie and read Tom Coyne’s next book or head to the driving range and see how far you can launch a range ball with a three iron.

I should disclose that there are some pages in this book with a lot of colorful language (and by that I mean bad, R-rated words). There are adult situations (again, a broad way of saying that these scenes would get an R-rating). Still, despite the stuff that is harsh, I believe that this is an appropriate book for some teens. There’s nothing in here that’s grittier than Sherman Alexie’s superb The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (read an excellent review of this book here), and the worst word you’ll read in A Gentleman’s Game you’ll also find in one of the greatest books in the history of the world (Huckleberry Finn). When I was a teen, I wish I had read more books with adult situations. What better way to understand the demanding world you’re currently and soon to confront than to examine complex situations through good literature? Being fed by only that which is thin or sugary sweet is certainly no way to grow strong. Am I right? Where would you draw the line at what is appropriate? What do you, the young adult reader, want to read?

The blended family thing

Barbara Shoup's Wish You Were Here is one of the better stories I've read about divorce, remarriage, step families and the whole crazy thing I like to refer to as "This is ain't no Brady Bunch" ideal. I breviewed it in my column this month at Bookslut - here's a bit:

From the beginning, the biggest problem in Jackson’s life is that his est friend Brady has run away. The two of them were inseparable and while Jackson isn’t unduly worried about Brady he is both hurt and angry. Brady didn’t flee a dangerous situation; he ran because he was sick of dealing with parents and school and all the requisite drama of each. That it was so easy for him to go disturbs Jackson to no end; if they were as good friends as he thought, then wouldn’t his buddy have done the right thing and said goodbye?

Brady is never far from Jackson’s thoughts as his mother's engagement to a nice guy with two kids upends everyone’s lives. Shoup really excels at her description of step-child life, and the difficulties Jackson faces as he continues to care deeply about both of his parents while trying to make room for a new family. His blundering into a sweet romance while on vacation seems almost formulaic but turns out to be much more. He finds himself falling into a relationship close to home that ultimately is more about Brady then anyone else, and it ends so badly that your heart will hurt. As one thing after another piles up, readers will witness how someone can fall apart if they pull too far away from the ones they love. Jackson can’t hold everything together and when Brady reenters his life just as he seems to be getting on track you will hold your breath to see if he can pull himself out of harm’s way in time.

This one is a classic, pure and simple. Readers should be of the high school variety due to some sex and drugs (and R.E.M.); consider this beach blanket reading of the smartest kind.

It even has a road trip to Graceland at the end and one big fight between two friends that is just the right kind of believable. This book impressed me a lot; give it a read if you want something to think about.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers

Wondering about death and dying is a natural part of being alive. Just about everyone has spent some time pondering that big question, "What happens when I die?" Mary Roach's book, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, is one source you can head to for answers to some of the more physiological questions you have about death. Let me tell you, you'll find answers to just about every question you had, and answers to questions you would never have even thought to pose in the first place.

Fact: Mary Roach writes cool books. Here's a woman who knows how to choose subjects that raise eyebrows, spark curiosity, and ultimately, draw many readers. In Spook, Roach investigates the science of the afterlife, and most recently, she takes an up close and personal look at sex in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Not being the squeamish type, as soon as I clapped eyes on Stiff's startling cover, I was eager to find out more about the various and incredible fates of cadavers from past to present. Roach's book is absolutely teeming with information. She covers the use of cadavers in medical training, the study of human decay as it relates to forensics, human crash test dummies, cadavers in military testing and crucifixion experiments, and even medicinal cannibalism. If it's about human cadavers, it's here.

When I was about one third of the way through this book, I took twisted pleasure in sharing anecdotes from some of the more unusual sections to shock / amuse / disgust friends and family. Not exactly topics fit for dinner conversation, though. There was an element of boasting that went along with this too, since I proclaimed not to find it that difficult or disturbing to read even the most macabre chapters of the book. Obviously, I should have considered medicine as a career, given my iron stomach. Roach has an engaging style, and laces her writing with wry humor. I can't say that I thought it was, "uproariously funny" as did Publisher's Weekly, but Roach managed to keep the tone light enough in places to balance the darkness inherent in her subject matter. I found, however, that Stiff becomes progressively more and more gruesome as you go. By the time I got to Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash, there wasn't much chuckling going on. It was at this point that I started wondering, "Do I really want to know?"

Besides all of the fascinating information about the origins of the discipline of anatomy, and incredible behind-the-scenes glimpses into the medical realm, you'll find a lot that's unsettling and potentially disturbing in Stiff. Let's just say that there are parts of what I read here that will stay with me for a long, long, time. It'll take a serious injection of Gossip Girl to dull some of the images I encountered in Roach's writing. Stiff has a mesmerizing quality, but at times, it almost feels like too much information. Reading it made me think about my own mortality, what I believe in and what I want to happen to my body after I die, yet there were places when I felt overwhelmed. Just because we can locate information about a topic (e.g. how scientists use human remains to determine the cause of airplane crashes), does it follow that the general population really needs to know? There were certainly moments when I considered that my response to Stiff would differ greatly if I had recently lost a loved one after prolonged illness, surgery, or in an accident.

Stiff is entirely worth reading. Clearly, Mary Roach invested tremendous research in her book, and her writing is conversational and droll. I might go so far as to say that this is an important book for people to read because it takes some of the mystery out of the physical aspect of death. I don't think it is a book for everyone, because depending on circumstance, I doubt all readers could remain distanced enough to get through the detailed descriptions in most of the chapters. Verdict: Stiff is best read in small doses, interspersed with Calvin and Hobbes or some Peanuts.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Take a Hike, Buddy!

A couple years ago, my wife and I hiked 85 miles or so in the Shenandoah National Park. We saw lots of black bears, and one morning a barred owl watched us as we ate breakfast and packed up to hit the trail. Oh, and I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild. And a beautiful skunk! Luckily, the snake didn't get us, and the skunk didn't spray.

But I'm not terribly experienced at backpacking, so I've been reading a lot of books on the subject. This is one of my favorites: Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book. Allen and Mike have way more experience: they have both taught at the National Outdoor Leadership School (Mike's also been a program supervisor there.). Sharing their wisdom (and goofy illustrations by Mike) in a little over 150 pages, they tell it like it is:

Different conditions (summer or winter, desert or mountain...) require different equipment and techniques. So readers learn what works in the heat and cold, what helps in the rain, and what precautions to take in extreme weather or trail conditions. The equipment chapter is very helpful. The authors discuss merits of tents versus tarps for shelter (Tents collect exhaled water vapor, which condenses so they're wet and heavier in the morning. Tarps are cheap and lightweight, but biting insects might be trouble.) They also discuss advantages of down and synthetic insulation in sleeping bags -- down is lighter, but more expensive, and if it gets wet "it no longer insulates and takes forever to dry."

Other topics include how to use a compass and topographical maps, minimizing your impact on the environment when you hike, tips for using stoves and cooking, how much food to take with you, pros and cons of filters versus iodine tablets to purify your water, and where to look for yummy mushrooms. (Not really, but they do say that "typically the western side of a mountain range gets the most precipitation." And I know that mushrooms follow the rains. Guess where I'm hunting for the tasty fungi!)

Allen and Mike include a list of "Other Recommended Resources." The National Outdoor Leadership School books they mention look good, and I agree that Ray Jardine's Beyond Backpacking is great -- he shows you how to enjoy hiking even more by keeping your pack weight to a minimum. Excellent advice! But if you're just getting started, I'd go with (full title, now) Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backpackin' Book: Traveling & Camping Skills for a Wilderness Environment!