Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy

We just finished this, our next read-aloud, a couple days ago. What fun! Birdsall's voice and wit engaged us all from the first page. We were also immediately endeared to the four wacky sisters (OK, the oldest is mostly level-headed), their gentle professor father, and their comfortable, protective dog. Lighthearted and in the tradition of an old-fashioned family novel like The Moffats, this little book tumbles along at the speed of girltalk, with one true-to-childhood adventure after another. It succeeds in two unusual and impressive ways: real-life humor—we laughed out loud with every chapter; and freshness—the kids' scrapes are at once believable and unpredictable. Best of all, in this midst of this rollicking story, everyone finds comfort in family.

The Neverending Story

I read The Neverending Story aloud to the kids this winter. Debbi gave it to us years ago, but we just hadn't gotten around to reading it until now. It was so much better than I expected that I almost regret waiting, except I think it was the perfect time for our family. All the kids were actually old enough to appreciate a fairy tale that's much more than just an adventure story.

It's really two hero myths, one after the other. The first half of the book is Atreyu's adventure, which we read along with Bastien, a geeky boy who “borrows” the book from a bookstore and reads it all day and night in the attic of his school. We and Bastien enter the magical world of Fantasia on the brink of destruction. Brave young Atreyu is the hero they need to discover how to save the world. His adventure follows pretty much the same paths as the movie, but with more richness of course.

About half way through the book we, Atreyu, and Bastien learn that the Childlike Empress, upon whose life the life of Fantasia depends, can be saved simply by receiving a new name. The catch is she can't receive that name from any Fantastican. Only a human can give her a new name.

Now, the story would be pretty complex and satisfying if it ended here, with Bastien finally finding the courage to call out her new name and enter and save Fantastica. Author Michael Ende has already given us plenty to think about—the nature of time, space, and existence; the inexorable bond between imagination and reality; courage; the power of despair and of faith and sacrifice. And along the way we've met a bunch of fascinating characters.

But this is only half the book. Where else can we go? Many places. With Bastien on his own hero quest. Bastien does what probably any kid, and lots of adults, would do with the magical wish-granting amulet given him by the Childlike Empress: he makes himself into all the wonderful things he's always dreamed of being: handsome, powerful, incredibly strong, known for his generosity, beloved by all. Fantastica is rebuilt by Bastien's wishes. But the more he wishes for himself, the worse things get. It's only his friends' amazing determination that saves him, and the rest of the story is Bastien's journey toward his true, best self and his one real wish.

It's this part of the quest that I think offers the richest rewards for readers who persevere through Bastien's frustrating, whimsical, destructive selfishness. “Up until then he had always wanted to be someone other than he was, but he didn't want to change.” With Bastien, we discover this paradox: it's better to be who we really are, and to be that we have to change. As Bastien journeys from selfishness to compassion, each stop is an unforgettably powerful allegory. I'd love to tell you about each of the places he visits, but you should really just make the journey with Bastien yourself.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Gregory Maguire

Wicked (the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West), Son of a Witch, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister:

They are super duper good! I just can't stop, when I read them! Wicked and Son of a Witch both have the good against evil theme, and also, the same sort of love theme. Wicked is GREAT, yet not as G-rated as the musical. It tells all about Elphaba (the witch) from her birth, to college, to trying to bring down the Wizard of Oz, who is the dictator of the Land of Oz, to her death, which we all know was Dorothy's fault. She has a love life, and a family, and all that stuff, and then stupid, ditzy Dorothy comes along and dumps water on her! The book really makes you hate all the characters of the Wizard of Oz, who in those books were the good ones. I mean, they're good, they're just stupid, and do stupid stuff, and most people in Oz don't like them.

Son of a Witch, of course is about the son of the witch, Liir. No one is quite sure he even is the son of the witch, but he flies on her broom, so that's what people think. In this one, the Wizard is gone, but the new Emperor is a bit insane. So Son of a Witch is about Liir growing up and falling in love, and killing some dragons on the way.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister shows Cinderella in a whole new light. This Cinderella doesn't go anywhere, because she doesn't want to. She cleans the chimney because she likes to. She is slightly spoiled though, because she's the rich one, not the stepsisters, and pretty stupid, too. Basically the only good thing about her is she is beautiful. So the book tells about how Iris and Ruth (the ugly stepsisters) come to be Clara's (Cinderella) stepsisters, and how Clara gets the Prince. It's the same story of Cinderella, but it's got a twist.

Read away! They are GOOD!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

“The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” So begins the story of a very old man, “ugly, shy, and anachronistic,” who has resolved to tell, finally, just what he’s “really like.”

“I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn't pay,” he continues, “and the few who weren't in the profession I persuaded, by argument or by force, to take money even if they threw it in the trash. When I was 20 I began to keep a record listing name, age, place, and a brief notation on the circumstances and style of lovemaking. By the time I was fifty there were 514 women with whom I had been at least once. I stopped making the list when my body no longer allowed me to have so many and I could keep track of them without paper.”

All this presumably changes when he meets “Delgadina,” the 14-year-old girl procured for his 90th birthday. He does not touch her that first night, nor the next night, nor the one after. Instead, he simply watches her sleep, exhausted as she is from caring for her siblings and crippled mother and from her day job sewing buttons. He’s smitten from the start, and so at the unlikely age of ninety, his life is overhauled by love.

I feel unqualified to dislike anything by Gabriel García Márquez, but with this slim novella I come very close. His other novels I’ve read (100 Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera) left me absolutely floored. His talent is prodigious and undeniable, and I fully expected this to be yet another amazing story masterfully told. But to be honest Memories falls a little flat. It’s García Márquez’ first work of fiction in ten years, and at a mere 115 pages long, I wonder if maybe its brevity is the problem. The qualities that usually amaze—his inventive “magic realism,” the color and innovation of his language, the swooping narratives that move seamlessly back and forth in time, the panoramic scope he manages with unwavering authority—feel squeezed out of this short work. Also, the book comes off, frankly, a little careless. Jumps in time are not as smooth as they could be, memories are inexplicably dropped before they're fleshed out or given meaning, and dialog can be downright confusing. Too, we're expected to overlook the grim realities of third-world brothels and the barbarism of sex for hire with barely-pubescent virgins and focus instead on the raptures and pains of love and old age. It’s a lot to ask.

Memories isn’t all bad, though. I enjoyed its humor and earthy sensuality, and there is some wisdom to be found in these pages—I will say it's not without merit as a meditation on aging, desire and regret. Oh and kudos to GGM for somehow avoiding salaciousness and making this narrator more than just a dirty old man. But to my sisters who want to try something short by García Márquez, I say better to go with Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

And Then There Were None

I read this for a book report for English. It was on the reading list, and since the book report is a movie, I thought I'd read something actually cool, so that my movie would be even cooler! So, I chose this one and discovered Agatha Christie is way better then whoever wrote Nancy Drew. :)

It was crazy! I read it in 2 days because I could not put it down. And Debbi read it also, she read it after work, because by that time I was asleep. She finished it also, so maybe she'll say something about it on here, too.

Anyway, it's about 10 people that get invited to an island, but when they arrive their host is not there. The people have nothing in common except that they all have commited murder that the law couldn't prosecute them for. In each of their rooms there is the nursery rhyme "10 Little Indians" (another name for the book) about how each of the ten indians die. People out of the ten start dieing in just the way it says in the poem and the ones left have to figure out who the murderer is before it's too late!! It's really great, a fast read, and quite spooky! READ IT!