Friday, March 16, 2012

Books of a Feather: Smart Kids

Since it's been a while, and I have a fair amount of ground to cover, I came up with a snappy way to combine a couple of books, and resurrect an old feature at the same time.

During one of my February posts, I mentioned about all of the fabulous books I got from the library. Two in particular had similar themes: "The Selected Works of T.S Spivet" by Reif Larson and "Gifted" by Nikita Lalwani.

Both deal with smart children, and the tension between their intellect and natural inclinations. T.S. Spivet's particular gift is cartography. He makes maps of everything, not just physical surroundings, but relationships of things to each other and actions. Rumika Vasi's gift is mathematics.

The two couldn't have grown up in more different environments, though. Young T.S. Spivet is the child of oddball parents. His father is a literal cowboy, owner of a working ranch in Montana. His mother, Dr. Clair, is a biologist who has spent her life trying to find an elusive species. His father is rather disdainful of intellectual pursuits (specifically him), and his mother is too wrapped up in herself to pay too much attention to him. He's been more or less left to his own devices, and has had a secretly flourishing career illustrating things for various print media. He's stunned to learn that he's won a prestigious fellowship from the Smithsonian, and decides to stow away on a train to go accept it.

Rumika's story, by contrast, will probably make you want to throw things. The PC way to put it would be that it's a case of culture clash, when Indian natives try to translate their way of life to Wales and to the rearing of a genius daughter. The un-PC way to put it would be that Rumika is the child of an overbearing control freak father and a spineless, submissive mother, and a child you can't help but feel immensely sorry for throughout her tale. From the moment her gift is detected, Rumika's life is math, math, math. Her father makes her study in summer clothes with the windows open so she concentrates better, denies her all outlets and chances for a social life, and then packs her off to Oxford at an early age, with...rather predictable results.

Based on these two books, it seems that genius and a harmonious home life are not compatible. "Gifted" totally plays to all stereotypes about genius children, and quite a few about Indian families, too. "T.S. Spivet" is a lot less claustrophobic and rage-inducing, but his family still did not quite know how to cope with him. In fact, the two books are the two most common narratives of genius children: "T.S. Spivet" deals a lot with ostracism, how his gift alienated him from most people he knew and prevented him from forming many close relationships; while "Gifted" is about the pressures believed to be placed on these children from society and their families.

There's no doubt about it: "T.S. Spivet" is the more creative work, featuring many of his drawings and several twists and turns. "Gifted" has a lot less joy, a lot less character development, and is much more straightforward, and less fun to read. Rumika is alienated from her gift to the point where she doesn't even like math at all anymore and doesn't succeed at Oxford. T.S. loves his maps the way a musician loves her instrument or an artist delights in drawing. No one makes T.S. do anything.

But I wonder which is closer to the more common experience of a genius child. Are there other narratives out there besides Rumika's and T.S.'s? Do any grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults from households that could integrate them into normal family life and society? I don't know. But it makes me wonder now.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Imagine a world in which no one got sick. Crime was an extreme rarity. Your food was delivered to you daily, rather than having to cook it yourself. And on your 80th birthday, you'd have a feast day, all day, then die painlessly.

In exchange, everything was optimized and tightly controlled. You didn't choose a career. Instead, you were monitored closely, given a work experience at 17 based on years of data about your abilities and inclinations, then a finalized vocation. You had a choice of a handful of recreational activities each week. And, at 17, your ideal match was selected for you, also based on years of data.

That's Cassia's world. Cassia is the main character in Ally Condie's 'Matched.' Except, things don't go quite according to plan. Cassia gets her Match, all right, and even more excitingly, her Match turns out to be someone she's grown up with, which is very rare, considering the large population of the Society. After you get your Match, you get a microchip containing photographs and information about them. Despite being good friends with her match, Xander, Cassia views her chip anyway.

Her chip is all screwed up, though. It's all about someone else that she knows, a boy named Ky. Although an Official quickly tracks her down to exchange the chip and reassure her that the entire thing was a mistake and that she shouldn't question her Match, she does anyway, which in turn leads her to question whether The Society really does know best. And, as it turns out, she's not the only one wondering that.

I enjoyed reading this book, and got through it very quickly. Since I've been re-reading The Hunger Games recently, which is also set in a totalitarian society in the near future and features a female POV character choosing between two different boys, I can't help but compare them. And I predict that the Matched trilogy will have fewer male fans. The boys in this story are not terribly vivid and act more as plot devices than full-fledged characters, the way Peeta and Gale came across. Also, the action in Matched is mostly emotional. There's little enough problem-solving, and no real violence at all.

That being said, I can see many women loving this book. It does have a nice, romantic plot, and but Cassia is not a sappy character. She has an Athletic Permit because she enjoys running hard on their 'tracker' and passed an examination to ensure she wasn't an anorexic or a masochist. She's very smart, and seems destined for one of The Society's higher-level jobs until the romance thing sidetracks her. She is also an independent thinker: when she chooses her Match banquet dress, the clerk points out that her non-mainstream choice was predicted by her personality. Cassia is a character you can admire and root for, and does well at carrying the plot along. I'm looking forward to picking up 'Crossed' on my next library trip.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A good library haul

Yesterday, I was in such a foul mood that people were noticing, even at work. I decided I'd better try not to bring that home and went to the library instead.

I wasn't expecting much. Usually when I go to the library in a bad mood, I have a hard time thinking of things I want to read, and my mental state means that I won't luck into anything that looks good, because NOTHING looks good. And I get irritated that they just buy crappy books for morons and that the whole place is geared towards lovers of Danielle Steele and people who only visit the library when they want to try to fix their sink themselves and not people who actually like decent books, which by the end of my trip, I can't even define anymore.

Miraculously, that didn't happen to me yesterday. I found all kinds of books, including some I've wanted to read for a while, at a library where I've historically had bad luck despite it being the second-busiest in our 37-library system. I could have even had Jill Kelly's book, "Without a Word," but I flipped through it and it seemed to have more Jesus in it than the Bible, so I left it on the shelf.

Here's what I got. Try not to die of envy.

Matched, by Ally Condie. I actually read this one already and will have an entry about it soon.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. I was reminded to look for this book when I saw another patron with it. I figured, why not see if they have another copy? And they did.
City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling. I liked "The Island at the Center of the World" a lot and was excited to see that someone had novelized about an era that doesn't loom large in our collective imaginations. She has several books, too, so the prospect of discovering a whole new author is exciting.
The Year that Follows by Scott Lasser. I only remember that it was a family drama that looked interesting.
Gifted: a novel by Nikita Lalwani. I deal a lot with 'stage parents' in my job. I don't mean that they are literally trying to make actors out of their children, but they're usually trying to gain some sort of renown for them. This novel is about a girl whose parents are trying to get her to be the youngest person ever admitted to Oxford, and what happens when her own desires clash with theirs.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson. I liked the movie.
Townie: a memoir by Andre Dubus III. The author of "The House of Sand and Fog" recalls growing up in two worlds: that of his working-class mother and his academic father.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. As you know, I like anything that's weird, anything that promises to be different. This is about a 12-year-old cartographer and his cross-country journey to accept an award from the Smithsonian. Other than "Matched," obviously, this is the one I'm looking forward to reading the most.

So yeah, it was a good day at the library!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens. Today, you are 200!

If you Googled anything today, you will already know that today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. I know I'm a bit late to the party, but if you've never read any of his works, I encourage you to give him a shot.

I will be bluntly honest. Literature that pre-dated the twentieth century by much had never really been my thing. I'd love to claim that I had a childhood love affair with "Huck Finn" or "Treasure Island," but I didn't. I guess when I was younger, I had a hard time getting accustomed to earlier writing styles. The references would throw me. And I just liked it to be easy.

I gave Dickens a try after reading the Jasper Fforde books. Miss Havisham features prominently in them, as does David Copperfield and Uriah Heep. If you feel as I used to about older books, Dickens will help dispel your prejudices. He writes in a warm, emotive style, and employs memorable characters and lots of humor. I do plan to read all of his books. I haven't gotten very far, just "Great Expectations," "A Tale of Two Cities," and "David Copperfield," but I certainly plan to keep the project alive. If you've been meaning to read one of his books, now is an excellent time!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I stand against SOPA

Tomorrow, I'm blacking out this site (assuming the coding worked) to oppose the internet censorship legislation currently under consideration by our government. As you cruise the web tomorrow, hopefully you'll see a lot of this. According to, you will. Don't try to get your entertainment fix in via Failblog or Reddit tomorrow. Need to look something up? Don't ask Wikipedia. Everyone's getting active, whether they've got one of the largest search engines or a tiny little book blog. If you've got a website and want to help make this point, go to the above address. See you on the other side of the blackout, and let's hope it's not a permanent one.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Life under the bridge: The Lost Memory of Skin

Pedophiles are high on the list of things that we, as a society, fear and hate. States are passing stricter and stricter laws that carry harsher sentences and lifetimes of punishment. In one very well-publicized instance, it led to a colony of sex offenders forming under a Florida bridge. The law stated that sex offenders couldn't reside within 2500 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers, or similar places that attract a lot of children, and the bridge was one of the few places that met the criteria.

That bridge inspired Russell Banks' new novel, "Lost Memory of Skin." A young sex offender, known only as The Kid, is struggling to build some sort of life for himself under the bridge. After a raid, he meets The Professor, a sociologist interested whose interest in studying the community quickly crosses the line into actively trying to help The Kid and the other denizens of the bridge make things better for themselves. But The Professor has a past, too, that ultimately catches up to him (and no, it's absolutely not what you're imagining).

While child molestation is one of the worst crimes someone can commit, I've long felt that as a society, we're entirely too hysterical about it. And given the devastating consequences of it, that's a difficult stance to pull off. But we've managed it. People see them lurking everywhere, in pretty much anyone who so much as looks at a child they don't know. Seventeen-year-old boys are forced to register for life for receiving "child porn" sent to them by a classmate. Nineteen-year-old boys are stamped with the sex offender tag for having sexual contact with girls three or four years younger than them. The outcome doesn't even matter. On the Free Range Kids blog, I have seen comments from people who grew up, married the guy when they were of age, and have children with him, yet he's unable to attend their school events or get involved in their activities, all because of something he did with his now-wife years ago when they happened to be on the wrong side of an arbitrary age line.

So I viewed this novel, of course, as a scathing commentary on all of that. Banks did an excellent job of walking a fine line, knowing that many people would have little or no sympathy for The Kid. He made him not exactly likeable, but somehow sympathetic anyway. It's ambiguous just how much of a danger to society The Kid might be. It's more that he's simply not very bright, and not very social. He grew up without much of a home life. Around the age of 10, he discovered porn, and that was pretty much all he did for the next several years until going to basic training in the Army. I won't get into the exact nature of how The Kid came to commit a sex crime, but that story is rather pathetic, too.

Overall, this is a terrific novel, and it has a lot in it. I'd be interested to see what other people think of the book. I'm glad to see someone willing to take on such a controversial and highly charged issue. It's one that's not going away any time soon.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hey, Boo

So, the Mr. and I were fed up with Time Warner Cable's usurious rate hikes, and finally did something about it: we ditched the cable portion of our package, got an Xbox Live Gold Membership (around $60 per year) and got streaming Netflix and Hulu. It's not exactly the same experience. One upside is that Netflix has all sorts of offbeat stuff streaming that you'd really have to hunt for on cable TV. The documentary "Hey, Boo" is one of them, and we watched it tonight.

It's a strange coincidence that I was just writing yesterday about how I'd like to interview Harper Lee, then I watched a documentary about her. I learned many interesting factoids about her life and her book, for example:

The courtroom in her hometown, where her lawyer father used to work, was replicated precisely for the movie, and is now a museum.

When Harper Lee was a young woman, working at the airline reservation counter in New York and trying to hone her writing, a very good friend of hers who had made a big pile of cash off music royalties gave her a year's worth of living expenses so she could write. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was the result.

She had a brother who died of a brain aneurism at 31, and a sister who turned 99 in 2010 (the year of the documentary) and was still practicing law.

The documentary was studded with many literary stars, including Richard Russo, Wally Lamb, and Allan Gurganis. Oprah Winfrey was also in it, as was the girl who played Scout in the movie. It included footage of teachers discussing the book with their students. The writers talked about their favorite parts of the book, and what it meant to them. Richard Russo highlighted the father-daughter relationship, and the conversation Atticus had with Scout after she told him that other kids were saying he defended niggers. Oprah Winfrey choked up, reading the moving passage in the book after Tom is found guilty and the entire black community stands to honor Atticus' efforts to defend him. Anna Quindlen said that she collected incendiary, non-conventional heroines growing up, and counted Scout among them.

I had no idea that Harper Lee hadn't granted an interview since the 1960s, although I knew she'd stepped back from the public eye. The documentary made me wonder even more, how she felt about the tremendous, enduring reaction to her book and what her intent was when she wrote it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Booking Through Thursday: Dream Interviews

This week's question sort of made me laugh:

If you could sit down and interview anyone, who would it be?
And, what would you ask them?

As some of you know, I interview people all the time. I'm a reporter for a weekly community newspaper. I've interviewed a wider variety of folks than that description of my job might imply. The biggest thrill for me was the time I got to interview Judith Viorst, in my opinion, a true living legend, author of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" and a book my mom had in the bathroom titled "Yes, Married." I read that book many times when I was 10 and it kind of gave me a thrill, since I viewed it as being all about sex. It wasn't about sex in any kind of racy way whatsoever, more a humorous look at marriage (I kind of viewed her and Erma Bombeck as being the same, growing up). But when you're 10, anything about sex is pretty interesting.

One thing my job has taught me is that you never know when you're going to get a quality subject to interview. I've interviewed people who've done tremendous things and had little to say about them. And I've interviewed people for stories I'd been forced into doing that sounded poke-your-eyes-out boring, but the people behind it had such passion for the subject that they got me excited, as well. I've noticed that sort of dynamic even as a reader of profiles in magazines. I despised the music of Marilyn Manson, for example, but whenever I saw him profiled in a magazine, I would usually pick it up, because he's quite an interesting person with a unique take on the world and a lot to say.

Since this is on BTT, I am guessing that the idea was that we choose an author. I might pick Harper Lee. I've always wondered what her intent was behind writing her book. I'm curious as to why she thinks it remains so widely read after society has changed so much. I'd talk to her about her character development, and the balance she had to strike in writing in Scout's voice, since it was an adult looking back on her childhood. I also wonder why she stopped at one book, and what she's been doing with herself since "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published. But I highly doubt she'd answer most of those questions.

Really, my dream interview is anyone who's had an unusual life experience and can talk about it well, though. That's who I look for in writing articles.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


The library system in Erie County (where I live) has released its list of most borrowed books in the past year. I found it pretty interesting. The top adult fiction novel surprised me, and it surprised me that it's ruled for two years in a row.

I'm not at all surprised that "Without a Word" dominated adult non-fiction around here. A decade and a half after retirement, Jim Kelly is still revered as a god in these parts. Thousands of people participate annually in the Hunter's Hope fundraising events. He and his wife remain sought-after speakers, emcees and commentors. Some of the others surprised me. I'm curious, do other library systems do this sort of thing? I feel like I've never seen a list like this from the Erie County system before. If anyone else has a link to one from a different part of the state or the country, or another country altogether, I'd love to see it. I wonder how much what we read varies by region.

Adult Fiction: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson ** this is the second year this title has been the most borrowed library book in Erie County.
New Adult Fiction: "The Confession" by John Grisham
New (21-day) Adult Fiction: "Sing You Home" by Jodi Picoult
Graphic Novel: "Grim Hunt (The Amazing Spider-Man)" by Joe Kelly, Fred Van Lente and others
Adult Non-Fiction: "Without a Word: How a Boy’s Unspoken Love Changed
Everything" by Jill Kelly
Adult Paperback: "Eat This, Not That! 2011: The No-Diet Weight Loss Solution" by
David Zinczenko
Children’s: "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth" by Jeff Kinney
"Princess Bedtime Stories (Disney Princess)" (no specific author)
Children’s Non-Fiction: "The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary" by Jeff Kinney
Children’s Paperback: "The Sea of Monsters" by Rick Riordan
Fiction: "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett
Non-Fiction: "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How to Be an American Housewife

After reading "How to be an American Housewife," the debut novel by Margaret Dilloway, I googled the title. I'm astonished that there is no movie in production right now. I predict, though, that you can look for it soon.

This book has everything Hollywood loves, and I don't mean that in a negative way at all. Just that it's the type of book that would translate to film well, and be loved by audiences. I could see mothers taking their teen daughters to it, or making it a tri-generational outing. It's an enjoyable read, too, but isn't so light that it floats away.

The story is told by two women. Shoko was born in Japan and came to American just after World War II. Her family realized that things were changing, that they needed to change with them, and that Shoko's best hope for success was to get a job where she could meet lots of nice American men, and marry one of them. She does just that, working in a hotel gift shot and going on dates at night. She obtains photos of the most promising men she meets, and her father chooses one of them for her.

Charlie turns out to be nice, and amenable to marriage, and they raise a family and have a relatively happy life together. But it hasn't come without costs to Shoko, and chief among those is her relationship with her younger brother, who hasn't spoken to her since the day she brought Charlie home. Now an old woman, Shoko wants nothing more than to return to Japan, for the first time since she left it, and make amends with her brother.

But she's too sick. Shoko lived 50 miles away from Nagasaki, and her heart was damaged by the radiation. So, she sends her daughter, Sue. Her granddaughter Helena accompanies Sue to meet the family they've only heard about, scarcely even seen in photographs, and to try to make amends on Shoko's behalf.

The story is structured by a neat narrative device: each chapter is framed by a quote from a book titled "How to be an American Housewife" that is written for women like Shoko. There are chapters with titles like "Becoming American" and "A Map to Husbands." I was crushed to learn that Dilloway wasn't quoting from a real book. In an afterword, she said she was inspired by a book her own Japanese mother had, titled "The American Way of Housekeeping." But it was written for maids working for Americans, and her mother didn't use it much, although she says that an internet search revealed some instances of other Japanese war brides using it to help them assimilate.

What I liked about it was the Japanese perspective on what it was like to be defeated, and live in Japan after the old order has broken apart. It's often said that history is written by the victor. It's easy to forget the other perspective. It's also hard to imagine what it must be like to leave behind everything that's familiar and try to become part of another culture forever. This book brings it to life. It's definitely worth a read!

Maxwell Perkins and his "test"

I realized in looking over some old posts that I've frequently referred to "the Maxwell Perkins test" on here, without fully explaining what I mean, or where the phrase came from.

When I was about 16, the cover of "The Great Gatsby" jumped out at me at Barnes and Noble. This version had the original, iconic cover, with the impressionistic carnival lights and the woman's face superimposed in the sky. It captured my imagination immediately. I simply had to read this book that had the cover with its mixed images of longing and celebration.

The version I got was a Scribner classic that drew on the original manuscript and the surviving proofs, and claims to restore a number of errors that arose from a rushed printing schedule of the first editions, and multiplied over the years through careless reprintings. My version came out in 1991 and has a foreword and a note on the text by Matthew Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina, an afterword by the publisher, Charles Scribner III, a map, several pages of explanatory notes, suggestions for further reading, and a biographical note on F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The publisher's afterword was what stuck with me the most, for it concerned the process of writing and editing the book. It was a revelation to me to learn that one of the great luminaries of American literature went through the same process of rewrites and criticism that my own short stories as a high school student were subject to. Charles Scribner quoted at length from a letter that Maxwell Perkins sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald on the book. It's fascinating to see his criticisms now that the book is a bona fide classic. The original letter took up three pages in the book, but I'll quote the part from which my "Maxwell Perkins test", my gold standard for character development, derives:

I could go on praising the book and speculating on its various elements, and meanings, but points of criticism are more important now...I have only two actual criticisms:
One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital -- I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him -- Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus on him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery...and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

So simple, yet there's the heart of good character development, to me: would you know the character if you met him or her on the street, and would you have a clear sense of how to react to him or her? Would you hesitate to greet Walter Freeman while you weigh how interesting your talk with im would be, against how much energy you have for it today? Would you grit your teeth as Leah from the Poisonwood Bible approached, ready to hear all her opinions on politics and world economics? Would you give Adah a warm hello, knowing she probably won't answer you back, or would you steel yourself as Rachel descends on you like a hurricane, full of energy, drama and complaints, and smelling of hairspray and expensive perfume?

Of course, not every character needs that type of dimension. But I maintain it's a good thing if your leads have them. I don't know how much Fitzgerald took that particular criticism to heart. I'm inclined to think, much less than I did, for my impression of Gatsby was similar to Perkins'. The letter also goes to show that just because someone says they dislike something about your writing doesn't mean they dislike it as a whole. Perkins also went on to say:

The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms. The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Burning Christmas Greens: a poem for the New Year

Happy 2012! I don't often "do" poetry on this blog, but I heard this one on our local classical station in the run-up to Christmas, and it stayed with me. To me, this is always sort of a melancholy time of year. The excitement of Christmas is past, and here on the Niagara Frontier, we're digging in for several months of cold, gray weather. Yet, I'm not sure if I've ever seen it depicted in literature before. So for this time of year, and since it's an activity some of you may be engaging in today, I give you a poem by William Carlos Williams titled "Burning Christmas Greens."

Burning Christmas Greens

Their time past, pulled down
cracked and flung to the fire
--go up in a roar

All recognition lost, burnt clean
clean in the flame, the green
dispersed, a living red,
flame red, red as blood wakes
on the ash--

and ebbs to a steady burning
the rekindled bed become
a landscape of flame

At the winter's midnight
we went to the trees, the coarse
holly, the balsam and
the hemlock for their green

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold's
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

to fill our need, and over
doorways, about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest
and among those hemlock
sprays put a herd of small
white deer as if they

were walking there. All this!
and it seemed gentle and good
to us. Their time past,
relief! The room bare. We

stuffed the dead grate
with them upon the half burnt out
log's smouldering eye, opening
red and closing under them

and we stood there looking down.
Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow's
hard shell. Green (we might
have said) that, where

small birds hide and dodge
and lift their plaintive
rallying cries, blocks for them
and knocks down

the unseeing bullets of
the storm. Green spruce boughs
pulled down by a weight of

Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments . . . Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red--as

yet uncolored--and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame and we, in
that instant, lost,

breathless to be witnesses,
as if we stood
ourselves refreshed among
the shining fauna of that fire.