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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: My Name is Mina by David Almond

Lately I've been reading a lot of middle grade novels and, as is the case with adult novels as well, some are great and others are not-so-great. However, when I get really into a great middle grade book I feel like magic happens. That's what I felt with David Almond's "My Name is Mina" - magic.

Almond's novel is told as Mina's journal and the voice of an odd, intelligent young girl is spot on. Mina is creative and different and interesting so she can't begin her journal with a simple recitation of events, she decides to begin and "let my journal grow just like my mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does." And what follows is a short time in the life of a really smart, unique and likable character with all of her clever observations and whimsical nonsense. Can I tell you how much I love a healthy appreciation for nonsense? Children are so stifled by standardized testing and systematic rote learning - they need more nonsense!

The book is more than just the reflections of a strange young girl. It's a sort of love letter to the art of being yourself. Mina is not popular in school; neither her teachers nor her peers can understand her. She's interested in nature and William Blake and ideas that are much larger than addition and multiplication. She creatively interprets her assignments though a very personal lens that her teachers can't fathom, which causes significant problems for her in school. Most of the novel is spent as Mina phases between coming to terms with the death of her father, in brilliant wonderment of the natural world, and trying to establish what it is about her that others find so strange. Why would people not want to make up lovely new words and talk about archeopteryx fossils?

What I love about books like "My Name is Mina" is that they speak truth in a relateable way, as when Mina writes, "Weird, how I can feel so frail and tiny sometimes and other times so brave and bold and reckless and free, and ... Does everybody feel the same? When people get grown-up, do they always feel grown-up and sensible and sorted out and ... And do I want to feel grown-up? Do I want to stop feeling ... paradoxical, nonsensical? Do I want to stop being crackers?" Everyone feels weird, everyone feels different and when we come across someone that is truly original (whether in life or fiction) you can't help but root for them. And I'm rooting for Mina and David Almond because their story is simply enjoyable and wonderful.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I must say, Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" is a book for a certain kind of reader and that reader is me. Judging from the response this book has been getting and the loads of early buzz that reader is quite a lot of other people as well. I say "a certain kind of reader" because I want to be clear - I am about to gush about this book but I know it is not for everyone. I found the story to be engaging but I was often removed from the plot and much more interested in the incredibly vivid imagery than what went on between the characters.

The novel begins with a single exciting sentence, "the circus arrives without warning." And this circus is a thing of beauty; it is supported by two magicians, Celia and Marco, who are in a competition that is meant to be a duel but never ends up seeming like one. Instead, they begin to compliment each other's enchantments rather than competing against one another. They have been tied together from a very young age as their teachers' most recent pawns in a centuries long battle over magical methodology. Le Cirque Reves is the showplace for this particular duel. Celia and Marco create tents of magical wonder disguised as mechanical illusions, and that is the real heart of the book. When Morgenstern begins describing one of the tents (more and more are added as the story progresses) everything else seems secondary, and by everything I don't merely mean the story at hand I mean life, the universe, and everything. The imagery created in "The Night Circus" is the best kind of escapism ... this world so vividly described is one that I want to belong to.

I feel like my thoughts can best be expressed in a quote by Friedrick Thiessen a character who looked in on the circus from the outside and dedicated himself to it.
I find I think of myself not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to reach the circus. To visit the circus again, if only in their minds, when they are unable to attend it physically. I relay it through printed words on crumpled newsprint, words that they can read again and again, returning to the circus whenever they wish, regardless of time of day or physical location. Transporting them at will. When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn't it?
Morgenstern does for us what her imagined Thiessen did for his readers, she provides us with a way to visit the circus. She gives us this most elegant world of dreams through words. That truly is a type of magic.

I'm sure that we could easily get into a critical discussion about what it all means, as there is plenty here to debate (competitive vs complimentary relationships, form vs chaos, the importance of storytelling and magic, etc) but really this book just begs to be felt. I escaped into it during the long nights of a difficult weekend and had my own dreams of Le Cirque des Reves. I know it sounds cliched to describe a book about magic as enchanting but there it is. "The Night Circus" is absolutely enchanting. It held me under a spell that I did not want to find a way out of.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: Dark Water by Laura McNeal

Laura McNeal's "Dark Water" is criminally under-appreciated. It is a novel that will spark discussions among readers and educate them without ever being preachy or pedantic. Plus it's a great story with a tender romance. It was up for the 2010 National Book Award and yet few readers that I know have encountered it. I'm making it my goal to change that - starting now.

Pearl Dewitt is fifteen years old and since her parent's recent divorce she and her mother subsist on the courtesy of her wealthy uncle. They live in a tiny cottage on his avocado farm in southern California. Those scant details represent the momentum of the book; that being the issues most pressing to southern California: migrant workers, water, and fire. "Dark Water" is a reflection of all of these.

Pearl is intrigued by a young immigrant, Amiel, who is alone in town, doesn't speak, and leans on the near side of eccentricity. Amiel is fascinating; he is not downtrodden and sad eyed as the other men who wait at street corners looking for work are. When Amiel begins to work on her uncle's farm, Pearl finds excuses to talk to him, watch him, or simply be near him. It is young love. More infatuation than genuine feeling, but McNeal handles it so deftly that the book never veers into teenage melodrama.

Any relationship between Pearl and Amiel is not only taboo it is outright forbidden. Culturally it just cannot be done. This is a fact that Pearl brazenly ignores but Amiel never forgets. Amiel's resolve is yet another way in which McNeal keeps "Dark Water" from becoming a typical tale of young romance. Through their friendship the true goal of the book is realized. We see a discussion of the working immigrant life in the US. The workers are both desperately needed and ultimately disdained. This is a hugely important topic, and to see it tackled with such grace and wrapped in such a nice prose package is wonderful. I would love to see this novel discussed; especially in a classroom setting.

"Dark Water" approaches the issue of Latin American immigrants from a relatable and humanizing perspective. At one point, as Pearl questions her uncle about the men who work his farm he describes an afternoon spent with one of his picker's children:
I took Esteban's kids up into the tree house because I thought they might like to play in it. And you know what the youngest one said? He looked around with this really serious face and asked, 'Who's going to live here?'
As Pearl's uncle later expresses, it is important to know "why they left." That's what's so great about the novel. Laura McNeal uses all of these elements to tell a story that is interesting on many levels. The drama of love and the danger of the oncoming wildfire serve the purpose of creating a discussion about a difficult modern issue. Yes, this is a teen novel and I think it is one that's important for teens to read. However, I think it is equally important and enjoyable for adult readers as well. "Dark Water" can be read as a different novel by all who approach it, but the questions it asks will create personal discussions and lasting changes.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why I want to give Just Kids by Patti Smith

On April 23rd I hope to be passing out 20 copies of Patti Smith's memoir, "Just Kids." I feel like World Book Night and this particular book are a perfect pairing. WBN is about finding people with whom to share your passion as is Patti's story.

In the late 1960s, Patti Smith (still just a kid) moved to New York City in order to better understand who she was and who she wanted to be. There she met Robert Mapplethorpe and began a relationship that would transform each of their lives. Patti and Robert each knew that they wanted to create art.
"I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within a work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind come a light, life-charged."
Art, any kind of art, is the spark of life.

"Just Kids" is about is the relationship that Patti and Robert shared. How they pushed each other to experiment with their creations. Patti prompting Robert to take his own photographs and Robert in turn prompting her to sing some of her poems. They each found great success through these endeavors and built up communities around themselves dedicated to the importance of art. However, even more than these two people and their art "Just Kids" is about art and passion as a whole. It is about the need to express and the need to experience art. The need to share these experiences.

The gulf of idealism runs deep throughout the book. It makes me wonder about just how much the world has changed. Has the vastness of the internet and our global community killed idealism? The host of snark and the altar of irony have made a mockery of true feeling. Can we be "Just Kids" any longer? Then I realize that all is not lost; the soul of the world is not dead. Books like this are being written. Art is alive in the world and people are gathering in its name. Promoting art and literature and true passion through community involvement is the goal of World Book Night. It starts with the distribution of one million books by passionate givers, but it does not end there. It extends to new conversations, new relationships, and new communities.

At a time when people are saying that book culture is dying and no wants to meet face to face to discuss books here we have fifty thousand individuals who are going out to do just that. World Book Night was established to create new readers, but I know it will do more than that. World Book Night will serve as a shot of adrenaline into literary communities. More people will be going into bookstores, passing books around, and sharing their literary experiences - that's the power of idealism.


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