Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Lovable Creature

"Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

Frankentein or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley
1818, 191 pages

The poor creature! Dr. Victor Frankenstein, driven by blind ambition, created a being who he could not love and, thus, created a monster. It is a sad and tragic tale. I suspect that the creature was a shadow of Dr. Frankenstein whom Frankenstein was sadly horrified by. In fact, the creature was capable of love, learning, and attachment. It was only the world's reaction to him that caused him to seek revenge.

The lessons I received from it were: don't hate your creations, love them; don't hide your monsters, they are not as evil and uncontrollable as you think; and be careful about what you wish for and what you strive for. I also saw in it a creation story in the line of Adam and Eve. God created these creatures but in the end, their ambition and thirst for knowledge repulsed the creature, and they were cast out. These creatures then went on to commit some horrible acts. What if God had accepted the creatures for what they were?

Monday, July 9, 2012

It Doesn't Have To End This Way, Or Does It?

After reading the story, I couldn't ask. Not just because I didn't want to admit to being jealous, but because the story made the truth irrelevant. The telling was what mattered. So at least we believed then. I think now that we were wrong. What really happened does matter, even if we can only ever know it once it's too late to do anything about it.

What Happened To Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha
2012, 256 pp

Are we each other's creations? Can we write a different ending? What is the nature of God and is he a participant in the creative process?

These are questions that seemed to present themselves while I was reading What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. The book covers some interesting topics, in a new and surprising way. The story is told from two points of view: Sophie's, written in the third person, and Charlie's, written in the first person. Time also collides and overlaps. It is slightly disorienting -- in an intriguing way.

I found myself in awe at the genius of this book and will be thinking about it for a long time. It's a short book and it is told by an expert craftsman, but it is not necessarily an easy read. I came away somewhat dazed and confused, and I still would not be able to tell you what exactly, and with certainty, happened to Sophie Wilder. And that, I think, is the point.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys having their head spun around by a book.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Search for Self Amid War and Changed Places

Marjorie had one last thought. "How will we change back?" she asked.

"I'll work that out," said Shona, giving Marjorie a push. "After the war -- in Holyrood Park."

Searching For Shona, by Margaret J. Anderson
1989, 159 pp

A lonely rich girl and a confident poor orphan switch identities at the train station in Edinburgh during the evacuation of children during World War II. Shona, the poor girl, hands well-to-do Marjorie her flimsy cardboard suitcase, which Marjorie later discovers holds a key to Shona's past. Uncovering that past will be part of Marjorie's life for years, when she is in fact discovering herself in another poor little rich girl's house from long ago.

Searching for Shona is filled with memorable characters, mystery, and the drama of war. It is the story of an 11-year-old girl who learns self-reliance and builds her life from the ground up -- discovering an inner source of strength that she had never known existed. She discovers that not only can she take care of herself, she can take care of other people too. When the war is over, she is a changed person, but she is completely herself.

I first read this wonderful short novel about 30 years ago. I was probably about 11 years old -- the perfect age, I think, for this story. While it is a short read with language that is not difficult, it remains one of the most compelling stories I have ever read. I began to re-read this book to my 11-year-old daughter this past week. When she fell asleep, I continued on. I simply couldn't put it down and wait for our next reading session. I'll just have to re-read it yet again, which I look forward to.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Adrift On A Small Island

The loveliness of the evening twisted itself into the sensation of longing -- but for what? For more. For more, or for some end to it, some climax, but the sweetness only stretched on, like a violin string that is tuned to unendurable tautness but will not snap. No release, only fading, light leeching away.

Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead
2012, 320 pp

The beautiful poetic prose of this novel alone makes it worth the time. But Shipstead also gives us a window into people insecurely clinging to the edge of upper-crust New England. As idyllic as it may look from the outside, it is an insecure world. Characters, like the island they are inhabiting, are forever being threatened by the vastness of the ocean, which lays all around them and threatens to swallow them and their little perch of dry land.

Livia is perhaps the only character in the book who lives in this world yet is intrigued and excited by the vast ocean that lays beyond. No one (not even ex-boyfriend Teddy, she soon realizes) "gets it." Even she doesn't quite get it. But she is, for the most part, not afraid. Or at least she does not allow her fear to rule her completely. She is willing to venture out and possibly get hurt. "The firefly floated in a little curlicue, enticing her. . . Maybe she had stumbled out of an ordinary night and into a benthic underworld." But the fear is there, which is what makes Livia such an intriguing character. "A wavelet washed over her feet, and she felt afraid and profoundly alone, about to be swept away."

Not to give away the ending, but they all get swallowed up, in a way, in the end and I found it to be incredibly beautiful.

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. The writer is very young yet has an impressive line of accomplishments already behind her (Harvard, Iowa Writers' Workshop MFA, Stegner Fellow). She is brilliantly talented and hard-working, and she exhibits complete and awe-inspiring control over her craft. It is hard to imagine that she could top Seating Arrangements but hopefully she has a long life ahead of her and will be certain to give us many more gems such as this first novel. Seating Arrangements should be at the top of anyone's summer reading list and makes an entertaining but smart beach read.

Monday, July 2, 2012

New Jersey Shark Attacks Pull Kids In

For the next hundred years, people around Elm Hills would be talking about Chet Roscow, the kid who had said there was a shark in the creek. He'd be a big joke, like the Captain was.

Chet felt like running away, far away. All the way to California.

But then he noticed Sid, strangely still in the creek. His face had gone white. His mouth was open, like he was going to scream.

Chet's insides turned to jelly when he saw the glistening fin moving slowly through the water.

I Survived The Shark Attacks Of 1916 by Lauren Tarshis
2010, 87 pp

This short chapter book places a fictional character, 10-year-old Chet Roscow, in the summer of 1916 on the New Jersey shore when a series of shark attacks terrified the state. Chet is new to town and is trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to fit in when the shark attacks intrude.

The story is well told and my 7-year-old son was riveted when I read it to him. The story was so good that my 11-year-old daughter often wanted to listen as well and now wants to read it herself. This is a great story that incorporates some historical detail, and kids will relate to Chet's more mundane issues of fitting in and will be captivated by the extraordinary events that change his life. Younger kids will be interested enough to settle in for a long storytime and older reluctant readers will find the text easy to read but fully engaging.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Grand Adventure: For Kids and Adults

"We've done it Robbie! We ran away and no one stopped us!" But somewhere in her mind came the answering thought -- no one really cared.

The Journey of the Shadow Bairns by Margaret J. Anderson
1980; 177 pp

It was probably more than 30 years ago that I first read The Journey of the Shadow Bairns by Margaret J. Anderson. It had been one of my very favorites when I was about 10 years old. I always remembered the story. I recently found a used copy on Amazon and decided to revisit this novel -- to see what it was that intrigued me so much all those years ago.

I was not disappointed. This is a story of two recently orphaned children who travel from Scotland to Canada in 1903 to make their father's dream a reality -- and to stay together. I fell in love with Elspeth and Robbie all over again and found myself rooting for them. The trip is scary and exciting, and filled with obstacles. The world is depicted as a hard and unyielding place -- with very few relatively soft spots to squeeze into. Elspeth has a quiet strength that is felt consistently throughout the book.

This is great storytelling for kids (especially girls) from about 9 to 12. But adults will also get drawn into these rich characters and their struggles to make a new life in a untamed land.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Legend of Tempe Wick

And I saw what I wanted to see. I saw a vision on a horse, galloping down the road from the west. And for a moment it was like a dream.

The girl was part of the horse, surely. The horse's feet scarcely touched the ground as it strained forward with an effort that made every muscle in its powerful body stand out. And something magical there was in the sight of them. For it did seem as if they were flying in the night.

They were parting the night and pushing it back in rolling waves as they winged through it.

The very whiteness of Colonel was a shock to the sensibilities as he dove through the waters of the night, the girl leaning forward on his neck. Her long hair streamed out, all mixed in with his mane.

And I knew what she was doing as she leaned forward, close to his neck. She was whispering in his ears. She was telling him how wonderful he was.

A Ride Into Morning, by Ann Rinaldi
1991; 353 pp

A Ride Into Morning centers on the mutiny of the Pennsylvania troops in Morristown, NJ, in January 1781. This is not a part of US history that I think many of us hear about and it was interesting. Rinaldi builds in some nuance too. The Wick family, and its members, are divided and sometimes undecided on the issue of war and their loyalties are not always clear. The Pennsylvania troops are not depicted as evil traitors, but as real people who had endured tremendous suffering. This is not a good-versus-evil story. The people, and the circumstances, are complex.

I did, however, feel that some parts of the story were more drawn out than they needed to be, almost as if there were not enough material to fill a required word count. Some of the dialogue seems to go nowhere for several lines and comes across as filler. The tension between Tempe and her cousin Mary seemed, to me, to be forced as times. These young girls are both depicted as extremely headstrong and almost obnoxious. This just did not ring completely authentic to me. It seems that young Presbyterian girls of that time and place would have been much more deferential to authority than these girls are in the story and to have two such girls in one place seemed a stretch. Young girls, essentially on their own, surrounded by a potentially mutinous army I think would have been more terrified and a sense of vulnerability in their precarious situation seemed to be lacking.

In the end, I recommend it for its historical accuracy and the joy that the author had in making these characters come to life is evident. It is still possible to visit the Wick farm in New Jersey and young teens (particularly girls who love horses) will likely savor this story about two brave and saucy young women at the time and place of our nation's birth.