Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, Rosecrans Baldwin

I know what you’re thinking – ANOTHER travel book? Shake it up a little! And I will. Next week. This week, I’m on vacation and I’m a little travel-obsessed. 

This was not the book I expected it to be when I picked it out at random during my anniversary book binge last month. My husband wanted me to buy a couple of books outside the genres I usually read (I took that to mean fiction as a whole), and I obligingly dove into the travel section. Who am I to argue with a man who wants to buy me more books? Plus, I actually do have an undernourished love of memoirs, autobiographies, and travel writing, so I was pretty excited.  So how could I possibly resist a book called Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”? I couldn’t. It so perfectly summed up how I feel about the City of Lights that I was powerless against it.

Here’s the short(ish) version of my relationship with Paris:

In the summer before seventh grade, we were asked to choose a language – either Spanish or French – to take for at least the next two years (once in high school, you could swap, or choose Latin instead). My mother begged me to take Spanish, perhaps intuitingthat I would not live close to the Canadian border forever, and might, in my travels, find myself living in a state where the unofficial second language would be español. I ignored her; I loved baguettes and the Eiffel Tower – I even had an inkling I might look good in a beret – and there was no way I would trade romance for practicality. So I didn’t.

Instead, I began five years of French classes taught exclusively by French Canadians, who apparently have completely different ideas about pronunciation than the French who live in France. And unfortunately, it turns out I was terrible at being bilingual anyway. Every day, the idea of going to class and trying to understand and respond appropriately filled me with dread. Every teacher I had seemed to subscribe to the same method of torture – never call on the student who’s raising her hand – instead wait until she’s cowering in her seat trying not to cry, then make sure you humiliate her for as long as possible. It was awful, and I really never got any better at oral comprehension, but I did slowly gain some traction in understanding the written language. Against all odds, I managed to nurse a  love of France through it all and held the country and its people in no way responsible for my demented training.

In college, I studied abroad and was given the opportunity during that time to go to France several times. On my only visit to Paris though, I was still smarting from a break-up, and my two closest friends were in a horrible fight that culminated in a screaming match outside of Notre Dame, where we were supposed to be preparing for a presentation to our art history class. I think I described the city after that visit as a place of “diesel fumes and rage.” Yet somehow, I was not deterred; in fact, I was pretty sure that Paris was fine, but there was something wrong with me.

So I gave it a few years, then went back with my husband and the best friend ex-pat I mentioned on Monday. Turns out, Paris can be pretty great. Terrifying, of course, because nobody French understood what I was trying to say unless I was ordering from a menu, but I could read enough signs to get by, and the food and history alone were enough to make me swoon all over the place.

In retrospect, my mother was probably right about learning Spanish. It would come in handy every day now (and I would probably embarrass myself less when trying to pronounce California street signs), but I can’t help it – somewhere in my DNA I am programmed to love France even if it doesn’t feel more than ambivalence about me back.

And that’s exactly what this book is about. Baldwin captures an experience I can only imagine and tremble at – he takes a job in an advertising agency in Paris without knowing much more French than the average seventh grader. He accepts it knowing that the transition is going to be hell; that he is going to be ridiculed for months as he batters French customs and language; and that he and his wife are going to have to adapt to all that is less than glamorous about Paris when you aren’t rich. Honestly, it sounds like hell. I don’t think I would have the guts to jump in the way he does, but I understand why he wants it as badly as he does.

For some people, France just has this hold on the imagination, and for all its faults (and it really has no more or less than anywhere else), it can be difficult to resist the ideal. The name of this blog alone will tell you that I choose not to resist (for all that the French are too sophisticated for me, as well as far too obsessed with dairy in my lactose intolerant opinion), but I also love to see the gritty underbelly – the side of Paris (and Parisians) that the guide-books forget to mention. In his book, Baldwin manages to capture both the all-forgiving school boy crush we have on France and the reality we can’t quite ignore – that Paris is a city even the locals love to hate.

To find out more about Rosecrans Baldwin, click here.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third-World Adventure Changed My Life, Eve Brown-Waite

We’re in Munich this week visiting my sister-in-law, so I’m going to keep my reviews on the brief side. This should not be viewed as a reflection on the books. It’s just that those beer gardens and churches are not going to visit themselves…

It’s not dumb luck that I happened to pick up two travel memoirs to review this week. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel overseas, I find I get a renewed interest in how other people tackle living abroad. One of my best friends is just about the greatest ex-pat I know (she’s lived in Japan, England, New Zealand, and Australia, and she tells me her next country is Argentina. Or possibly Germany. Unless she can get on that Antarctica team she’s looking into…). She has no problem learning other languages, and she eats just about anything (except shellfish). She has friends in what seems like every country in the world, and she has discovered the perfect balance between planning her trips and allowing them to unfold into spontaneous adventures.

Whenever I come to visit, she morphs into the perfect tour guide, providing me with a wealth of information, as well as experiences I probably wouldn’t tackle on my own (like those bath houses in Japan – let me tell you, four naked white girls can clear a room in under a minute). Although I have no driving desire of my own to uproot to a new country every few years, I hold her up as a gold standard of adaptability and good humor when it comes to the ex-pat life style.

This means I’m probably a little harder than I need to be on authors like Brown-Waite. She writes an excellent account of her foray into the peace corps (although I prefer the second half, when she’s living in Africa). The book is witty and charming – she’s a delightful writer, and I would happily search out another book by her because I so enjoyed her style. The only problem was that I had very little sympathy for her, and the book does, to some extent, depend upon that.

Just check out the title. It’s a mouthful. It communicated quite a lot to me about her as a person before I even bought the book, and I’ll be honest, it’s what made me pick up the book in the first place. I love the title. I love the premise. It’s just about the exact opposite image of a woman abroad that my friend embodies; instead, it’s sort of…me. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be like my friend – independent, intrepid, relaxed – but we can only change who we are so much.

In truth, what bothered me reading this book bothered me because Brown-Waite is so very much like me, and there are no faults we hate to see in others so much as our own. Pride, stubbornness, a desire to eat first world food while living in a third world country – me, me, and “I can’t help it if my body refuses to digest dairy and most meats” me. We even share a similar sense of humor, which is probably why I enjoyed the book so much, despite the fact that part of me kept telling her to shut up and try to blend already! The best characteristic she displays (and I’m biased because I feel it’s one of my best too) is that she perseveres. She wants to be better than she is, so even when I was reddening in shame on her behalf (knowing I would have surely made the exact same mistake given the opportunity), I was proud that she kept trying.

Some people seem to be born ready to assimilate anywhere, but for the rest of us, it’s good to have people around like Eve Waite-Brown, willing to both make the mistakes and then share them with the rest of us.

Now, excuse me while I go offend a city of people who probably speak English better than I do with the few phrases I’ve picked up from my German guide-book…

To find out more about Eve Brown-Waite, go here.

Soulless, Gail Carriger

I’ll admit it, after reading The Maze Runner this past weekend, I was ready for something a little frothier. I needed to shake the horror of that story and get into vacation mode (I’m off to Munich shortly to visit my sister-in-law). I’ve already packed a couple of travel memoirs for my trip, and I have some sequels queued up on my Kindle that will be perfect for letting my brain completely unravel, but I wanted to get through at least one more of my new paperbacks before I hopped a plane. I’d like to say it was hard to choose, but really, Soulless has been gently nudging me for the last month, and this close to my trip, I couldn’t resist any longer.

Let me sum this book up for you by sharing its tagline: A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols – every time I glance over at the cover, I can’t help but do a little fist pump thanking whoever coined that wonderful line. After Monday’s foray into the nightmarish side of YA, I needed Jane Austen meets Charlaine Harris, and happily, that’s precisely what I got.

Feisty heroine? Check. A supernatural contingent? Check. Just enough “romance” that I feel slightly embarrassed that I’m passing this book onto my mother? Check. It’s like I petitioned the universe for the perfect novel to stay up way too late reading, and here it is, in all its sly British glory. Better yet, it has two sequels, which I hopefully will have time to squeeze in on my vacation.

Let me lay it out for you. This is not the book you read when you want to feel intellectually superior. It doesn’t have dozens of intricate layers to peel away in order to reveal the emotional climax of the story, or a plot that will completely floor you with its originality.  What it does have is the ability to make you remember how delightfully wicked reading under the covers with a flashlight was when you were a kid. It’ll remind you that sometimes a great book makes you laugh more than it makes you think, and that can be a real gift to a diehard book lover.

This book just made me cackle. Repeatedly. In a very unladylike fashion. I love books like that. I like reading to be fun, and as much as I also enjoy books with more substance, I don’t feel guilty recommending one like this, especially at the end of winter when the teenager in me needs to be released to have a little fun during these beautiful bright summer nights. If werewolves and British humor aren’t your cup of tea (I’m sorry – I couldn’t resist), that’s fine. Just promise me you’ll go out this week and try to have your own mini-holiday reading a book that brings out the sixteen year old in you.

Unless, of course, your sixteen year old self likes political biographies, in which case….no, I guess you can read those too (I suspect if you go that route, there will be a lot less giggling, but what do I know?).  As a little vacation treat for me, I would love to hear what books you choose, so feel free to let me know in the comments. After all, I’m always on the look-out for great reads…

To learn more about Gail Carriger, go here.

The Maze Runner, James Dashner

Just as there are authors who enjoy having written and others who enjoy writing, there are books you enjoy reading and others you enjoy having read.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his book The Bed Of Procrustes

About a week and a half ago, I was browsing the blog of one of my commenters and I happened upon this quote by an author I hadn’t heard of from a book I’d never read that perfectly summed up how I feel about The Maze Runner. I would say, in fact, that I feel this way about maybe a quarter of the books I read and review. These books fall into a category outside of “books I really love” and “books that are completely forgettable.” They live in the “enjoyed having read” section of my mental library usually reserved for books that are educational (interesting, but dry), political (necessary, but soul-crushing), or horror (haunting, scarring, nightmare-inducing).

You see, I’m that person who never wants to see slasher flicks but who convinces my friends to tell me the entire plot then tries to pretend that the description alone didn’t give me nightmares. I was the kid who was genuinely afraid of books written by R.L. Stine. I didn’t even like to touch the covers, yet I often found myself sitting on the floor of the library reading them; once I started one, it was inconceivable that I not finish (even though the ending was rarely a happy one). I even used to write screenplays in college with the most stomach-clenching scenes – in fact, I knew without a doubt that my class would like the new pages if I was afraid to go to sleep after I finished writing them.

What does it say about me that my imagination is so vivid/overactive/demented that I can create pages of material that frighten me literally as I’m typing it (amusingly, I just hit the caps lock by mistake, so the previous sentence originally read “literally AS I’M TYPING IT.” I think my computer can be a bit melodramatic at times). I’m sure some people would tell me it’s spectacular, and some would recommend I try anxiety-reducing medication, but my own personal preference leans toward avoidance. If I know a book or movie or play (that’s right, I’m looking at you Shear Madness and The Mouse Trap – my eight year old self still hasn’t forgiven you your casual approach to murder) is going to tweak me out, I simply don’t engage.

This technique works well about ninety percent of the time. I have a pretty good handle on what gets under my skin and what I’ve hardened myself to for the sake of a great book. When I picked up The Maze Runner a few weeks back I figured I was in the clear. Both the back cover and the first few chapters read like this book was the love child of Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games. It’s an extremely fast-paced novel, almost too quick for me, but once I got past the overwhelmingly masculine voice (this is a book about sixty teenage boys and one teenage girl – and she’s in a coma for the first two-thirds of the story – so the male voice is appropriate, if a little much at first), I was hooked.

Dashner might not be speaking from a place that I relate to, but he is one compelling story-teller. His book is unapologetically action-packed, and to be honest, it would translate wonderfully to another format (like film) because he doesn’t spend a lot of time delving into the emotional psychology of his characters. Normally that would be a no-go for me, but it works here.

His concept and plot are strong enough that they manage to convey believable emotional overtones without needing each boy to go on a tangent about how terrified/lonely/sad he is – of course they feel this way – they’re children, stuck in a creepy and frustrating horror story. I have an older brother who, from the time he was thirteen until he went away to college, spoke in a language consisting entirely of grunts. If he formed a coherent six word sentence, I paid attention because that meant something. Many of my closest friends in high school were also guys, and while they were more chatty and outgoing than my brother, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about feelings (well, I spent a lot of time talking about my feelings, and they spent a lot of time listening to me try to explain to them that girls they were interested in might do the same). Do men have feelings? Obviously. Do some men enjoy sharing these feelings? Probably. Have I met many of them? No. Most of what I understand about male emotions comes from context and action on their part, and that is exactly how Dashner has written this book.

It is from this believability, this understated approach to the teenage male voice that made the terrifying parts of the story bother me so much. With a novel like this one, floating in the sci-fi/YA nebula, I’m usually able to remove myself and enjoy the story for its fantastic premise. It’s certainly why I chose to read it (I’m a sucker for an alternate earth storyline). I just didn’t expect to feel that these boys had formed a community with each other, a rather astounding community in fact, and that what they had created should be protected. That each of them should be protected because, after all, they’re just ordinary, fart-joke making, awkward teenage boys – vulnerable, irritating, imperfect and lovable – being tested and callously disposed of by unseen adult hands.

And lest you think everything turns out alright in the end, there’s a sequel (wait – make that two…plus a prequel). That I’m afraid to read. But probably will.

For more on James Dashner and his work, go here.

The Good Braider, Terry Farish

One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.   Geoffrey Canada, Waiting for Superman

I don’t love documentaries across the board. Maybe I should (I know my father, husband, and more sophisticated friends think so) but I don’t. I’m generally drawn to those about children and teenagers; this is true when it comes to books and films alike. I’m sure that after Monday’s post on Bringing Up Bébé, this doesn’t come as a much of a revelation. I watched Mad Hot Ballroom back to back with Waiting for Superman last year for the fun of it (as it turns out, the fun of it involved a lot of crying).

At Christmas two years back, my father gave me a PBS documentary called Children Will Listen about a production of my favorite musical Into the Woods, put on at the Kennedy Center in New York by group of underprivileged students and a dedicated group of teachers and arts professionals. It reignited the dream I had when I went to college as a Theatre Education major; I wanted to open an after-school arts program for children whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to expensive classes. I have no idea how I would have funded such a program or who I would have found with the business savvy to balance out my flightiness when it comes to spreadsheets, but it was born out of an unwavering belief that all children deserve more than the bare minimum.

A month ago, we happened upon a new documentary called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. I watched it even though I hate muppets (and had always hated Elmo in particular). Kevin Clash, Elmo’s creator and a master puppeteer, started making puppets when he was in elementary school. He was sewing and building his own puppets and putting on shows in his neighborhood by his early teens. The film followed his whole career, but the part that drew me in was the old film taken by his family during his childhood – he was so focused, so passionate – he believed he had the ability to create magic.

When I find stories like these about children rising to meet the high expectations of themselves or of dedicated adults in their lives, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. How fortunate that people exist who care so much about improving the lives of children and families – it makes me happier just knowing such people are out there.

With a book like The Good Braider, that same feeling explodes out of my chest and just covers the rest of my life. Terry Farish has written a novel in verse that combines the stories she has heard for years directing the literacy program at the New Hampshire Humanities Council (serving immigrant and refugee populations) into a stunning novel about a young woman struggling to survive, first in war-torn South Sudan, then later in culture-exploding Portland, Maine.

Whenever I read a book, I fold pages down, I underline favorite passages, I make notes to myself to share with others later. This book is full – I want to share so many sections of it just to help you understand what a deft hand Farish has, how aptly she renders both the atrocities of war and the simple joys that defy it. When I looked back through all the pages, however, the piece I finally decided on was the very first poem of the book.

I run breathless into my house.
What will I tell her?
I will tell her, Andrew has my book.
The teacher assigned us to work together.
But my mother does not turn to me.
She wears her after-work clothes,
her African dress that hangs
loose from her shoulders.
Maybe she has not seen me with Andrew –
my friend – seen me leap from his truck.
I watch the bend of her shoulders.
She holds herself rigid and does not
look at me. I’ll leave here again when the families
from Juba come to eat and watch news of the war.
I turn and look toward the door.
As if she can read my mind, she commands,
“You will stay in this house!”
She knows.
She knows I have been away from our people.
I have slipped out of Africa for a breath of time.
Do my hair and skin smell different?
I pause at the kitchen doorway.
She turns, and her eyes are ferocious.
I watch the water bubble up.
In Juba, the pot would need huge flames
to build the water to this boil.
I step toward my mother and the boiling water.
I mean to take the spoon and stir while the aseeda
thickens in the boiling water, this dense white food
that to our Sudanese people is life.
Instead I say, “Sometimes I do not want to know
how many people have died in the war.”
I say this
as the aseeda bubbles loudly
over the red electric coils.
Maybe it is those words
that cause what happens next.
She grabs my arm. She holds it hard
by my wrist and my elbow.
She twists my hand over the steam.

Yumis! Mother! You are hurting me!”

Now the war comes back to me.

Again, there is only the war. (pg 10)

This is the first book I’ve been sent to review before publication (it came out May 1st, but I’ve been hanging onto it for a while). Terry Farish is a friend and colleague of my mother, and she asked me, after reading J’adore, if I would be willing to look at a copy of the uncorrected proof. We’ve never met, and I probably never would have seen this book if she hadn’t sent it to me. That’s the cruel way of the world – so many life-changing books exist just outside our daily experiences. I think it might be the universe’s way of apologizing for all the terrible things we have to witness and endure when the right book does manage to find its way into our hands.

This is that right book. It’s the right book if you’re socially conscious, if you’re family centric, if you feel displaced, if you love to teach, if you want to learn, if you read about children and weep for the injustices they encounter, if you read about adults and feel shame for things you cannot change, if you read about mothers and marvel at their strength, if you read about fathers and wonder at their absence, if you read about war while hating the bombs that fall on your doorstep, if you read about peace and appreciate what little you have – this is the book for you. This story might not have the power to save us like Superman, but it inspires that breast-beating hope that ordinary people can make changes with their own two hands.

Terry Farish has her own site here, and she also has a fascinating site about The Good Braider here.

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Woman Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman

I am officially obsessed with this book. If you have spent any time with me in real life since I read it last week, you’ve had to hear about it. You’ve probably had me offer to lend it to you, or buy it for you, or read you my favorite sections aloud. I’m sure it hasn’t been at all irritating either, because everyone I know is as fascinated with child development as I am…right? Well, actually no. Not everyone. But those people are now smart enough not to pick up the phone when I call.

You might not know this about me yet, but I have, as my parents put it, “strong opinions.” Not about everything, of course – in fact, you could probably come up with a huge list of topics about which I happily know nothing, or which I even more happily know a few things but am still easily swayed by new evidence. Child development is not really one of those topics. I have very strong feelings about it, and having taught preschool for years, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to put many of my ideas into effect or to learn from other brilliant teachers.

I’ve studied the schools in Italy (both the philosophy created by Loris Malaguzzi and the town where it evolved are called Reggio Emilia); I’ve watched and rewatched old videos recorded by Magda Gerber (her philosophy is called RIE, pronounced “wry,” or Resources for Infant Educarers), and I’ve traveled around the country to visit preschools and infant centers that have successfully implemented ideas I think are crucial to the development of healthy, independent, creative, and (most of all) respectful children. I’ve gotten into wonderful discussions with elementary school teachers who are trying to find a way to bring joy and excitement back to the American classroom amid the duel need for teaching to the test and instilling a sense of propriety in their students. Education is one of the few issues that sets me off so consistently that, like other families where politics and religion are taboo at holidays, I strictly avoid the topic around extended family and guests (apparently I start foaming at the mouth after only a few minutes of discussion…).

I have a deep and abiding respect for teachers, one I’ve had since I was very small. I was always in awe of them, excited by the knowledge they held and the kindness they showed me when I wanted more of it. Even my French, Calculus, and Music teachers (who I know recognized in their hearts that I would never have much talent for their subjects) still treated me with respect and encouraged me when I lost all hope. I especially loved  the teachers who other students seemed to resist – they were often the ones who insisted on respect in the classroom and would not bend when parents came in begging a better, underserved grade on their children’s behalf. I liked those women and men because I knew that the reason they acted this way was because they expected a lot out of their students; they were treating us as peers – as people capable of creative thinking, of following deadlines, of adult behavior – and in doing so, they were giving us a great gift of respect.

As a result, as a teacher and as a friend to many people with young children, when I talk about child development, the point I always try to be consistent about is respect. Children deserve our respect, and we deserve respect from them. They are not tiny adults, nor are they people without rights or feelings. They are our responsibility, if we choose to have them or work with them, but they are not our masters; we are neither less or more important than they are – we just have more experience to draw from. In the United States, I have watched as parents become more and more terrified of their children falling behind, or of getting hurt (emotionally or physically), and the result has been more law suits, more fear, more guilt and much, much less joy.

When I picked up this book, which I did after reading an article about the author in the New York Times, I felt like I had found my philosophies about children all rolled up into one amusing package. Druckerman is an American married to a Brit trying to raise her children in Paris. She’s not a Francophile by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, she’s a neurotic New Yorker through and through who often questions whether living in Paris is the right thing to do. This book is her journalistic investigation of why French parents and children seem so much happier and more relaxed than she herself does.

If I could sum up her conclusions, I would say that French parents are respectful but firm. Druckerman talks a lot about the “cadre,” or the idea of a strict structure (a few certain rules that are followed without exception) that allows for a considerable amount of freedom within it. When people ask me how I could handle working with a classroom of eight children under the age of one (usually with just one other teacher), this is exactly how I would have liked to have been able to describe what’s necessary for success. We had just a few strict rules that had to be followed (most of which had to do with the children’s safety or care of materials) otherwise, we allowed them to have freedom to explore. Did I have to be there to remind the children that they didn’t have the right to hit each other or throw toys? Of course. It took repetition for them to understand what was expected of them (and in increasing increments, why is was expected), but even when I was angry with them for hurting someone else or acting inappropriately, they also knew, because I had told them many times before, that I loved, trusted, and respected them, and that I knew they were capable of behaving in a considerate fashion.

At the heart of, this is what the book is about. I have about three pages of notes I took while reading it covering new ideas for encouraging children to eat or sleep better, helping parents maintain adult relationships (with each other and with friends), and ideas I already held but have never been able to clearly express to my husband about how I eventually want to raise our children. I have read so many books on the subject, put so many ideas into practice (some of which worked and some of which, epically, did not) and have been involved in long debates with other professionals, yet this book still had new ideas I was excited about. Even better, those ideas were clear and easy to put into practice – really just a blend of science and commonsense – that’s how I described them to a friend (another teacher) over dinner the other night. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; whether you have children or not, it’s powerful to read about blending the best of cultures to raise curious, insightful, and considerate children. After all, who do you think is going to be running the world when we get old…

You can find out more about Pamela Druckerman here.

Icefall, Matthew J Kirby

I had the pleasure of reading Icefall a few months ago when John Scalzi recommended it in the “Big Ideas” portion of his blog (I think I have about ten more books waiting to be read that he’s garnered attention for there, and the ones I’ve already had the chance to read have been superb – definitely a site to check out if you need some new material). It’s the perfect book for winter (Hey – I’m throwing a bone to those of you south of the equator!) – it’s a claustrophobic story about the youngest daughter of the Norse King, Solveig, her brother the crowned prince, her sister, and the men and women who have been dispatched to protect them in a fortress hidden under a glacier while their father is at war. For months on end, these children are trapped between the icy sea and a mountain, surrounded by waist-deep snows, with a group of incredibly violent and ill-tempered berserker warriors who are supposed to be keeping them safe…of course, someone trapped with them is a traitor…

Doesn’t that sound fantastic?! It’s like one of those British murder mysteries that takes place on a dark and stormy night, except that the dark and stormy night lasts for more than half a year, and even if the children survive, their father may have fallen to enemy forces…so chances are they could still die once they return from hiding!

I don’t know – I thought it was pretty fabulous. Of course, I’m part Norwegian, so the idea of being essentially held captive by winter is practically a birth right. I’m also half Italian though, so the thought of all that dried fish with no garlic in sight…the thought alone is real torture.

Seriously though (as if I could be serious – the sun is shining, I’ve gotten to ride my bike every day this week, and I’m eating brownies – seriousness is a far distant cousin to what I’m feeling right now), I wanted to discuss this book as a companion to Winterling. It’s also a YA title with a young female protagonist, but they’re written so differently. As much as I enjoyed Winterling as a spunky little novel about magic, this book is a much more refined approach to both the genre and the targeted age-range. Kirby’s ability to capture the oppressiveness of his setting, combined with a plot that’s subtle, surprising, and at times (no pun intended) chilling, is a real gift for those of us who enjoy fiction aimed at a younger audience.

When I was considering this book again, I went to Kirby’s blog and noticed that, along with his writing career, he’s also a school psychologist. It’s clear that this second job, which he’s probably had much longer than he’s been a published writer, has greatly informed his work and educated him on material necessary to turn this unbearably confining setting and its many conflicting characters into a taut, suspenseful story. When reading his book, I trusted his characters, I believed they were responding to the overwhelming bleakness of the situation in a realistic way. Such a trust is a hard-earned privilege, and once an author has gained it, he has a duty to live up to for his readers; I was not disappointed.

Kirby blends a coming-of-age story about a young woman with ancient Norse mythology and a heaping dose of battle and intrigue – he’s written a book that easily appeals to wider audience – and one that made me love it even more for its unexpected warmth and delicately wrought charms.

Matthew J Kirby has a great site and blog here.

Winterling, Sarah Prineas

I went through a period of time a few years ago when I was reading almost exclusively Young Adult and Middle Grade novels. It seemed like every time I turned around, another great novel was being published, or a beloved series was on the rise. I have always loved those books because as a child, they offered a sense of adventure, an escape from the tedious stories we often read in school, and as an adult, they offered solace from the reality of the many poor decisions I had made. When I picked up a book, I needed to remove myself from the tedious life decisions that sometimes accompany adulthood, and a large part of me wanted to be transported back to that sense of adventure I felt facing life as a teenager.

ImageMore recently, I’ve been drawn to a wider range of genres and I’ve been gratified to find so much pleasure in these less explored territories. I still love books written for younger audiences though, and when I need a break from more serious novels (or the large collection of memoirs I’ve suddenly found myself in possession of), it’s wonderful to turn to a light fantasy novel like Sarah Prineas’ Winterling.

Because I’ve found myself a little out of practice reading for the Middle Grade audience, I was initially surprised by the simplicity of the characters in this book. While I found them enjoyable to read, they lacked the depth I have come to expect from the (frankly astonishing) books I’ve read over the winter. The evil characters were so evil! The good characters so earnest! Everything was black and white, and even if magic was tearing two worlds apart, I was caught off-guard by how straightforward the plot was.

Then I remembered being ten years old and pulling books like this down from the shelf in the library. Back then, my local branch had a very small section of books for teens (especially young teens), and it was always a joy to find a book like this one, with a tenacious female protagonist who wasn’t so unbelievably brave that I couldn’t imagine myself in her shoes. I loved that I knew who I could trust and who was my enemy – life was so much less clear than that in junior high, and books like Winterling provided just the escape I needed. The world created was simple but magical, the characters peopled by hidden allies, and it all took place in an alternate dimension that seemed just barely out of reach.

Finding books like this that appeal to a younger audience (and their parents) but are also well-written are surprisingly rare. I feel strongly that books with difficult content are often appropriate for people younger than they’re written for, and that many younger readers not only like but need those books; however, sometimes it’s nice to read a novel that doesn’t raise the tough questions. It’s like picking up Anne of Green Gables or Howl’s Moving Castle – funny and sweet with a little adventure mixed in. This is a book that offers a few hours of escape, a refuge from homework and texting and endless after-school commitments. It’s tough being a kid; it may look enviable or easy sometimes from where we stand mired in the challenges of adulthood, but the human condition is not a path free of thorns at any age. Sometimes we all just need an afternoon off, and Winterling is a lovely place to stop and rest for a while.

Visit Sarah Prineas at her site here.

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, Michael Chabon

I had The Final Solution on my shelf for less than a week before deciding it would be the perfect book to bring with me to Seattle for our anniversary weekend with friends. I was right; it was just what I needed, except for the fact that it was such a quick read I finished it on the first day while waiting for my friend to get her baby ready for sightseeing. And then, I admit it, I was a little mopey it was over so quickly.

I haven’t read any other books by Michael Chabon, although years ago I saw and loved the film adaptation of Wonder Boys (which, of course, is not at all the same thing, but it does provide some insight into his style). I had no idea what to expect, although I loved how my friend Ruby had described the book in her recommendation (A boy, a beekeeper, a parrot, and a mystery – what’s not to love?) I’ll tell you what’s not to love – nothing. This book was lovely. The plot is simple – is, in fact, secondary to the enviable emotional depth Chabon manages to plumb in a mere 131 pages. I do admit to having a soft spot for short stories, flash fiction, and novellas, but it’s been awhile since I picked up one as fine as this.

A profound reservoir of poise, or a pathological deficit of curiosity, Parkins supposed, might explain the near-total lack of interest that Mr Shane, who gave himself out to be a traveler in milking equipment  for the firm of Chedbourne & Jones, Yorkshire, appeared to take in the nature of his interlocutor, Mr Panicker,  who was not only a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a boot heel, but also a high-church Anglican vicar. Politesse or stupidity, perhaps, might also prevent him from remarking on the sullen way in which Reggie Panicker, the vicar’s grown son, was gouging a deep hole in the tatted tablecloth with the point of his fish knife, as well as the presence at the table of a mute nine-year-old boy whose face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows. (pg 12)

I admit I typed that whole paragraph out (ah, Kindle books, how you have spoiled me with your cut and paste) just to share with you that last line “the presence at the table of a mute nine-year-old boy whose face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows.”   I keep repeating it in my head, luxuriating in it, wishing I had written that phrase instead (although if I had, I might never have finished the book, as I surely would have been too enamored with myself to go on).

Beyond his ability to turn a the simplest of ideas into elegant prose, Chabon also has written a short novel that feels as though it must have books on both sides of it. What I mean to say is that, ideally, when writing short fiction,  the story should feel as though it has been taken out of a larger tapestry, that if only the reader looks hard enough, she will find a few more chapters – a story about the protagonist’s life twenty years before perhaps, or a reflection on how a German Jewish child has come to live in Yorkshire during World War II. Chabon writes as though he knows exactly what has happened to every person in his story from their birth onward; he holds back more than ninety percent of that information, but I never doubted for a moment that it was there in his head, tantalizingly out of reach.

He writes the way I wish I lived. I’m the kind of person who tends to hold back between thirty and fifty percent when talking about myself. Certainly I have humiliations and histories I keep quiet about, but by and large, I tend to be straightforward (I would even go so far as to say tactless) in what I share with others. I don’t think about it all that often, but when I read a story like this, I can’t help but admire the elegance of the unspoken. I long for his ability to pause and allow a scene to speak for itself, to watch fools and cretins spill out into the empty space while the wise wait patiently by.

Chabon also manages to stand back while his characters reveal their solemn wit or hasty conclusions in turns; I’m not distracted by him as a writer at all, as I am in many stories when I read authors who (like myself) put a little too much of themselves into the characters to remain unseen. I’ve already picked up Summerland, his Young Adult novel, and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how they compare to this little gem.


For more about Michael Chabon, check out his homepage.

Purchase The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (P.S.)