Monthly Archives: June 2013

Book source – Young Adult Fiction

Yes, I read Young Adult Fiction. I got started when I worked as a substitute school teacher, back around 1995. I signed on with my local public district, pre-K through 8. I took every kind of assignment, from Special Ed to second year Spanish (which I don’t speak). When students weren’t in front of me, I browsed whatever books were at hand. My most interesting “find” was Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

My second reason for reading YA fiction is that I “work” with teenagers. I’m a volunteer in a religious youth program. I spend time with sixth graders up through 19 year olds. I began out of a sense of obligation – my kids were involved – but I continued because I was having fun. I still am. One way I can understand my young friends is by paying attention to what they are reading. If The Hunger Games is being read, I should check it out. So I did. I found the first book  of that series gripping (to put it mildly), but stopped part way through the second volume. Too violent for me… I’ve read some vampire novels, most of which left little impression.

My absolute, all time favorite YAF book is A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond, originally published in 1976. It’s about youngsters, but there is nothing “cute” about this book. A real family faces real trouble, then supernatural events intrude. Good, believable characters and sound writing. The story takes place in Wales. I found this book in the Chinaberry Books catalog, which deserves attention as a good place to find reading material.


Science fiction (fantasy?) by Neal Stephenson

I like sci fi but have trouble selecting books and authors. There’s so much out there, lots of it is schlock.

My favorite sci fi novel (by a wide margin) for the past few years is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I love a convincing, well developed alternate society and the convent-like establishments in Anathem fill the bill. I’m was enjoying myself, and suddenly, in a throwaway line, I found out what the novel is ABOUT. It’s the nuclear priesthood, a concept that emerged in 70s (?) as a suggested way to deal with high level, long lived nuclear waste. Icing on the cake, not essential to the story. Great characters, good plot, well developed (I mean long). Anathem is a book I go back to. Maybe I will download it onto my Kindle for my next long trip.

Recently I picked up another Stephenson book, Snow Crash. Very dystopian. Corporations own and run almost everything. Much of life is conducted virtually, in an alternate “game” universe. If you like gritty, fast paced sci fi, this book is for you. I finished it, but without much pleasure.

“Veramo” by Cesar Aira – giving modernism another chance

After my cry of protest about modernism (see June 5), my son handed me a short novel by the Argentine writer and translator Cesar Aira. I started reading it “seriously”, the way I had (of necessity) tackled the work of Robert Mucil. But Aira is different. And funny! His sentences scan, though his paragraphs can be awfully long. The plot gains momentum and becomes more amusingly whimsical as it moves along. In the course of an evening, our clueless and isolated hero finds out, to his astonishment, that he has what he takes to write a book/poem. And he does it! The story is full of charming details and sly humor. So I guess I’m OK with modernism!

“Back to the Bedroom” by Janet Evanovich – beach reading!

I’ve got a soft spot for Janet Evanovich. After all, I live in New Jersey. Trenton, where she locates her long series of Stephanie Plum novels, is not exactly my “territory”, but business (NJ government) and pleasure (minor league baseball) get me there a few times each year.  It’s just as bad as she says.

“Back to the Bedroom” is set in Washington DC. Not as much fun. But the plot is pure boy-meets-girl romance and has plenty of laughs. Our heroine in an intense professional cellist, her neighbor a low key goofball who got rich by winning the lottery. Heroine finds time for life outside of music, neighbor has more on the ball than first appears, and love blossoms. 

When I want to relax, what else do I need?

For anyone who wants to go outside the familiar Stephanie Plum numbered series, in addition to “Back to the Bedroom”, I highly recommend “Visions of Sugar Plums”, JE’s Christmas novel. Hilarious!

“The Sea” a novel by John Banville, 2005

This book was recommended to me by a young adult relative. He was supposed to have read it for a college course in Irish Literature. But he didn’t… I think it would be more appreciated by older readers, but I can understand why it was part of a course. It’s so good!

The Sea is about death and memory. The author looks back on childhood as “the time of the gods”, a time of struggle to understand incomprehensible surroundings and mysterious people (adults). Several deaths frame the action. A pair of twins die when the author is vacationing with his family by the ocean. The story is narrated from the other end of life, just after the narrator’s wife has died (horribly) from cancer. 

The twins seem mythic – girl and boy, voluble and silent, normal (whatever that means) and abnormal (in contemporary terms, handicapped). The narrator seeks them out, fascinated by their upper class status and the vast differences between their family and his own. The twins’ deaths are incomprehensible, shocking, unexplained. Probably all death seems that way to a 13 year old. 

Enough detail is supplied to convince us that the wife’s death is brutal. The narrator, suffering, revisits the scenes of his childhood relationship with the twins and their family, without knowing why he does so. He drinks to excess, almost to death, and is pulled back into life by his companions – daughter, stranger and old, old acquaintance. 

Work makes this novel “work”? The writing is beautiful, and I don’t usually say this about authors whose vocabulary exceeds mine. The descriptions of people and settings are detailed and sensual. And the author “closes the loop”, linking beginning and end. Careful writing. I will look for other books by John Banville.

A African novel, an American novel…

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, 2007.

Public debate surrounding immigration is even more heated now than it was in 2007 when this book was published. Mengestu personalizes the immigration “issue”. The narrator is from Ethiopia, and his best friends are from Kenya and Congo. They share a history of violent dislocation.

Stephanos, the narrator, owns a struggling store in a struggling Washington DC neighborhood. A woman moves in and renovates a large, once elegant house, and change imposes itself on the community. Stephanos and the woman are mutually attracted, but somehow keep “missing” each other. Loneliness is the theme of this book.

This is a well written book. I feel like I got to know some people I’m might otherwise not have encountered.

The book seems to also have another title, Children of the Revolution. I found this out from, when I looked to see what else Mengestu wrote. A second book, How to Read the Air, was published in 2010. I hope he keeps writing.


New environmental classic?

Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, 2009.

This book has two titles. The one I just entered above is from the title page that downloaded into my Kindle. But on Amazon, I see Crow Planet: Essential Lessons from the Urban Wilderness, and in fact that’s what shows up in the home page list of my Kindle. Wait, maybe the problem is the unlaut, the double dot that sometimes shows up in German. The second “o” in “Zoopolis” is supposed to have an umlaut, no doubt to let you know the word has four syllables, not three. Maybe Kindle text hasn’t got the umlaut? But I digress.

I do like the word “zoopolis” (however you choose to pronounce it). It refers to the city as a place occupied by both humans and other living things, generally including crows. Haupt considers crows a type of “indicator” bird. They thrive alongside humans better than most birds, so they become very numerous when other birds are unable to persist. In other words, too many crows are a sign of trouble.

Haupt makes the point that we can study “nature” even when we live in the city, starting with the study of crows and moving on to other birds, insects, invertebrates, and the mammals that live in cities. (I will never voluntarily study a rat.) Her advice on how to be a naturalist (#1 – study!) is sound whether you plan to explore urban nature or a national park. She made a personal decision to carry binoculars whenever she goes out in the city, just as she does in wilder places.

Haupt makes multiple references to Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac was first published in 1949, before the word “environment” came into common use. His comments on the ethics of how humans interact with their surroundings still ring true after 60 years.

Toward the end of her book, Haupt addresses the issue of fear. She’s afraid of what the future holds. So am I, sometimes, and so are some scientists I know personally and respect. But Haupt finds reasons for hope, despite the daunting prospects we all face.

A new classic? Maybe. In the meantime, a good book, because it reminds us that nature is here, not somewhere else where we can only hope to visit once in a while.

Modernism?! Not for me…

The Perfecting of a Love by Robert Musil, 1911. This is a short story originally published in a book called Unions.

Why did I read this? I was invited to a seminar for alumni of a friend’s college. The seminars are low key, and if I have nothing to say, that’s OK. I should have realized something was amiss when we were advised to read the selection twice…

This is stream-of-consciousness writing by a man from a female point of view. Risky from the get go. The woman (Claudine) seems almost entirely devoid of will. Claudine has a troubled, promiscuous past, but then finds and marries her “beloved”. Forced by circumstance to travel alone (to visit her daughter at boarding school), she encounters and is seduced by a predatory, almost faceless stranger. Apparently, after an arduous journey, Claudine visits the boarding school and talks with the masters, but never sees her daughter.

Taking the plot literally, some seminar participants simply said that such a woman could not or did not ever exist. Details aside, I found Claudine incomprehensible, so overwhelmed with complex emotions that she was utterly detached from her surroundings.

The writing didn’t help. Long convoluted sentences and strange use of vocabulary baffled me. (The story was translated from German.) Another work by the same author (The Man Without Qualities) is supposed to be the height of literary modernism. It is described as “vast”. Sounds like the last book I would want to read.

Remembering the Sixties

The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson, 2012.

I wondered how a description of the sixties would match up to my memories. I finished high school in 1967, which means I rode out 1965 in a rather protected, suburban corner of the world. Different authors have picked different years as the crux of the sixties. Patterson emphasizes how fast attitudes changed (from hopeful to anxious) during 1965.

Two themes run through this book – Vietnam and civil rights.

To me, the important aspect of Vietnam was the draft. It was a cloud on the horizon in 1965, but before I was out of college, some draft boards called up every eligible man in their region. I was reminded that, in 1965, two Americans killed themselves by burning to protest the draft. News coverage at the time was scanty. 

Details about the civil rights movement were similarly interesting.

This book provides a good review of an important part of our history. Patterson (a professor at Brown University) has written (at least) seven other books. Several deal further with civil rights, and one is about cancer.