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.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Kindle Touch or Regular Kindle?

Which Kindle should I buy? was a question I was asking myself last week when my old Kindle keyboard broke. My husband had the regular Kindle and I had loved my Kindle keyboard, but I was intrigued by the Kindle Touch. So I went for *** SPOILER ALERT *** the Kindle Touch. Anyway, I thought I might share the pros and cons of each of these e-readers with you.

This post is just about Amazon Kindle e-readers (and not about other e-readers or the Amazon Fire tablet). I know there are people who are philosophically opposed to e-readers and I am sure that there are other great e-readers out there, but this is the one my family uses and the one I know. If you are in the market for a Kindle e-reader, I'm hoping I can narrow down what has become a confusing array of choices at Amazon. I have used all of these devices myself.

Special offers?
This is easy: get the special offers. The price difference is significant, and the offers are unobtrusive and sometimes interesting. The ads will never appear within a book you are reading.

3G or wireless only?
If you travel frequently or you do not have a wireless connection in your house, the 3G is useful. If you do not have access to wireless, you will have to plug the Kindle into your computer which is a hassle. For most people though, who have wireless at home and who keep a good selection of books on their Kindle, the 3G is not necessary and there is a significant price jump to get it. You don't, however, pay monthly fees for the 3G so you'll have free 3G access for the life of the Kindle.

Kindle Keyboard, Kindle Touch, or Kindle?
My old Kindle Keyboard with 3G, no special offers, just broke last week which is why I went shopping. I thought I would miss the keyboard, but I don't. It's nice to just have the printed page in front of me and the reduced size and weight is significant. Don't consider the Keyboard. It's just the older model that Amazon is still selling.

Kindle Touch versus Kindle?
We've narrowed the choices down to the Kindle Touch versus the plain Kindle (both with special offers, probably with wireless only). My husband has the plain Kindle. It is perfect for someone who just reads, and who doesn't look up a lot of words, take notes, or highlight. The buttons to move from page to page are physical buttons on the sides of the device. It's easy to use and the cheapest Kindle you can buy. It is also the lightest and the thinnest.

Kindle Touch adds a bit of cost ($99 versus $79), and a small amount of heft and bulk, but you'll get:
  • a longer battery life. Amazon says the Kindle's battery lasts for one month (with wireless off) while the Kindle Touch lasts for two months. If you are a constant reader, the battery will not last that long but with either Kindle you won't have to worry about the battery after even a few days of constant reading.
  • more storage. The Kindle holds about 1,400 books; the Touch holds about 3,000. With either, you can hold an infinite number of books in your online archive. To me, at these huge storage capacities, this is a not a useful deciding point. Both devices have more than enough storage.
  • text to speech. You can have your Kindle Touch read to you. This is not a bad feature to have (if, for example, you want to get through a book you don't love and you have a long drive). It is not a good way to experience a good book. It is a computer voice, not an audio book and the speakers are not great. 
  • the new x-ray feature. I have not, as yet, found this to be particularly useful. This allows you to see how frequently terms and people are mentioned in the book, where they are mentioned, and sometimes you can get more information on the term. For example, you might see that the city of Amsterdam plays prominently in the book. If you click on it within x-ray, you'll get the Wikipedia post on the city.
  • bookmarks. Both the regular Kindle and the Touch allow you to bookmark pages. But with the Touch, dogearing is as simple as touching the corner of the screen.
  • highlighting and note taking. This is a big benefit of the Touch. While you can also highlight and take notes with the regular Kindle, it's a bit more of a pain because you have to use the little cursor. With the Touch, you simply swipe your finger across the words you want to highlight, press highlight or note (if you want a note attached), and it will be saved for you to go back to later.
  • dictionary look-up. Another great Touch benefit. With the regular Kindle, you have to more the cursor down to the word you want to access the dictionary. With Touch, you simply tap the word and a basic dictionary definition appears. A full definition is just another tap away.
For the minimal added price difference, I think the Kindle Touch is worth it if you like to highlight and look up words. There are reasons to prefer the regular Kindle, however. If you think that touching the screen to turn pages will annoy you, then get the regular Kindle. It is smaller, lighter, and cheaper -- and it works great. You can hold the regular Kindle anywhere you want, without worrying that you'll accidentally turn pages. The regular Kindle has been perfect for my husband who just wants a book substitute for commuting. I, however, love the Touch -- I love easily highlighting passages that I want to read again later and I love easily digging into the dictionary for words I'm not familiar with. My Kindle books are a mess -- with highlights and dogeared pages. That's one of the main benefits of e-reading for me -- I can really tear into a book without fearing that I'm defacing anything.

Bottom line
Get the Kindle Touch (with special offers, wireless only) for $99 if you like to highlight, take notes, and look up words. Get the regular Kindle (with special offers, wireless only) for $79 if you just read and think that touching the screen to turn pages will annoy you or that you will be accidentally touching the screen and flipping through pages. Add 3G to either of these if you don't have wireless at home or you travel frequently.

Please post questions and comments if you are in the market for a Kindle or if you own one and want to share some thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The beautiful and tragic past, recreated

"I wouldn’t ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can’t repeat the past."

"Can’t repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
 

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

Book to film review: The Great Gatsby, 1974

The 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, brings the novel's sense of living in a colorful time on the edge to life. We're treated to scenes of wild opulent parties, and a lifestyle that many of us can only imagine. But this lifestyle was hallow and desperate. Fitzgerald had said in a letter describing New York in 1926, "The restlessness … approached hysteria. The parties were bigger…. The pace was faster … the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper; but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early—they were hard and languid at twenty-one…. Most of my friends drank too much—the more they were in tune to the times the more they drank…. The city was bloated, glutted, stupid with cake and circuses...."

Redford is intense as the cool and romantic Jay Gatsby while Mia Farrrow plays Daisy as a beautiful, lost, and ultimately shallow rich girl. The scenes of the Gold Coast of 1920s Long Island are beautiful, while the scenes of Queens are creepy. I was intrigued by the characters' east-west motion in the book and the film reinforced that visual for me -- that of going from one beautiful place to another (Long Island to New York City) but having to pass through a wasteland to make this journey. Ultimately, though, all of these places are empty and there is always something sinister lurking -- in spite of what it might look like on the outside. It is all a wasteland, sometimes a beautiful wasteland, but still a wasteland. Daisy herself represents this dichotomy. She is beautiful, but she is a fool; a beautiful little fool. She looks gorgeous and rich, and seems to promise fun, luxury, and love, but ultimately she is a prize not worth having.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blizzard! -- a thrilling and dramatic history of 1888

"New York City on that morning was depressingly gloomy. The air felt heavy with moisture, and it was clear that rain would begin falling any minute. After hurrying to and from church, the majority of people settled in for a cozy day at home. Fires were lit, books and newspapers read, popular songs sung, and games were played and argued over.... The more pious reached for their family Bibles when the subject of predicting the weather came up, and quoted Job 37:16: 'Can any understand the spreading of the clouds?'"

Blizzard! by Jim Murphy

Blizzard! uses a particular dramatic event -- the Blizzard of 1888 -- to put us back in that time and place, to fill in details of the larger history of the times, and to see how people in all walks of life were affected by this unusual storm. Murphy also explains why the Blizzard of '88 had such a hold on the popular imagination, even to this day. There were many first-hand accounts preserved by the New York Historical Society and the blizzard changed the way people viewed the government's responsibility to its citizens, particularly in big cities like New York. People suddenly demanded things like an underground subway and regulations concerning overhead wires and trash disposal. It is shocking also how many men, women, and especially children were forced to ride out the storms on the streets. The number of homeless at that time in New York City was staggering.

I greatly enjoyed reading this entertaining and informative history. The first-hand accounts make the story come to life and I learned a lot about 1880s New York and the surrounding areas. Older kids will enjoy looking through this book which has great photographs, tales of adventure and bravery, and interesting historical detail.

Why you should read it
  • to learn about the Great Blizzard of 1888
  • to learn about an interesting piece of New York and United States history
  • to learn about the changing role of government in cities

Monday, June 11, 2012

Holy Crap: the shockingly bad writing of Fifty Shades of Grey

"'Oh... by the way, I'm wearing your underwear.'" I give him a small smile and pull up the waistband of the boxer briefs I'm wearing so he can see. Christian's mouth drops open, shocked. What a great reaction. My mood shifts immediately, and I sashay into the house, part of me wanting to jump and punch the air. YES! My inner goddess is thrilled."

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I came across a free copy of this book and just had to find out what all the hype was about. Sometimes though, even when there is a lot of smoke, there is no fire.

The writing is bad, the plot is tedious, and the characters are flat. Christian Grey is a 26-year-old gorgeous multi-billionaire who is also a skilled helicopter pilot, a classical pianist, and a philanthropist with a particular concern for ending world hunger. Anastasia is a beautiful, but not financially well-off, 21-year-old college student who has never been drunk, has never had sex, has never owned a computer, and even, it seems, has never had an email address. She "flushes" when listening to Bruce Springsteen sing about desire and is shocked by a suggestion that her billionaire boyfriend's money could be in any way appealing. She is as dopey and inexperienced as anyone can imagine, straining the limits of credibility.

Some phrases are used so often that I'm surprised that people are not playing Fifty Shades of Grey drinking games. Holy crap! is probably the author's favorite way to communicate that something earth-shattering has just happened. Christian "cocks his head" countless times through the book. Anastasia has a more annoying habit that occurs even more. She bites her lower lip -- over and over and over again. Readers must endure pages and pages of email exchanges between these unappealing and uninteresting characters. Even the sex scenes that the novel is supposedly known for are boring and, since I cared so little about these characters, none of the nonsense in which they were engaged in the bedroom seemed intriguing.

*** (MILD SPOILER TO FOLLOW) ***

Towards the end, the sex turns rougher and Anastasia is now horrified by this guy whose creepiness extends way past the bedroom. She might have gotten a clue on their first date when he showed her his Red Room of Pain. But again, this is a surprisingly clueless college kid.

People must be reading a lot of bad fiction to accept this junk; and they must be having a lot of very bad sex to be turned on by the adolescent, and ultimately tedious, fantasies played out here.

Why you should read it:
    • because this book has somehow hit a nerve with a lot of readers and you are curious to find out why. Are people really that tasteless when it comes to fiction? And why is this boring and mundane tale selling?
    Why you might hold off:
    • you don't want to waste your time or your money
    • you enjoy good erotica and don't want to read junk in a favorite genre

    Friday, June 8, 2012

    A Transitory Enchanted Moment -- A Review of The Great Gatsby

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning --

    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

    The Great Gatsby is now 87 years old and still feels fresh, edgy, modern, and still has something fundamental to say about the American experience. The novel pulls us into the past, then into the future, and then back again. Like the tide that ebbs and flows between East Egg and West Egg, and the motor parkway and the railroad that pulls people back and forth, back and forth, between East and West -- in search of something that is just within reach, yet never grasping it. The tide pulls out again, just before we can hang on to that mesmerizing green light at the end of the dock.

    Fitzgerald distinguishes the East, with its fruitless grasping, with the more solid and contented Middle West:
    That's my Middle West -- not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all -- Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
    The tug between east and west, old world and new, old and young, is also the tug of the future and the past.
    [A]s the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes -- a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
    And as I sat there brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
    So sad, so tragic. This grasping into a future that is already in the past just as we come upon it. And we race along carelessly, turning a once beautiful continent into a Valley of Ashes, and leaving the less fortunate dead on the road as we speed on.

    It is also a book about growing up. Nick refers to his age several times in the book and, on the night of the book's climax, he turns 30. He is leaving youth behind. Later, he tells Jordan, "I'm thirty. I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor." Fitzgerald depicts a nation that has not yet crossed this threshold. We are still young and still lying to ourselves. The Valley of Ashes and the dead bodies in the road are not something we are ready to admit to ourselves. But Nick is staring it in the face and he's decided to return to the Middle West. Fitzgerald describes this Eastern/American carelessness:
    They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
    Nick grows up in this story and stops lying to himself. At the start of the story, he believes himself to be an honest man and prides himself upon it. By the end of the book, he's more realistic:
    Thirty -- the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat's shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.
    So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.
    Then there are the all-seeing eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Wilson looks out at these eyes plastered on the billboard and says, "God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me, but you can't fool God!" We can lie to ourselves, but reality is reality. You can't recreate the past. And in the future lies death.

    Sounds depressing and it is, in a sense. But it is so beautifully written and so stunning in just under 200 pages that the novel itself seems to be a metaphor for life: short, beautiful, tragic.

    Why you should read it:
    • to experience what New York may have been like in the Roaring Twenties
    • to sink into a glamorous, short, engrossing beach read (the entire story takes place in the summer)
    • to read one of the greatest novels about the American experiment and the American dream
    • to become enthralled by the author's stunning command of the English language
    Why you might hold off:
    • no one should hold off; read it again and again
    Local alert: F. Scott Fitzgerald attended Newman School, a prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey, from 1911–1912, and entered Princeton University in New Jersey in 1913 as a member of the Class of 1917. There he became friends with future critics and writers Edmund Wilson (Class of 1916) and John Peale Bishop (Class of 1917), and wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit, and the Princeton Tiger. He was a member of the University Cottage Club, which still displays Fitzgerald's desk and writing materials in its library. A poor student, Fitzgerald left Princeton to enlist in the US Army during World War I; the war ended shortly after his enlistment. Fitzgerald moved to Great Neck, NY, with his wife and child in 1922 where he worked continued work on his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, begun in 1911. Great Neck was the inspiration for the fictional West Egg, with East Egg lying just across the bay. In the book, the characters drive down Northern Boulevard toward Manhattan, which can still be done today -- although of course it is a much different experience. Wilson's garage is located in the old Corona Ash Dumps (the Valley of Ashes in the novel). The World's Fair grounds are currently located on the site. An interesting discussion of the spot can be found at ArchiTakes. All of these places -- Princeton, Great Neck, and even the site of Wilson's garage -- are within a car or train ride for many New Jerseyans.
    Review submitted for The Classic Bribe, Summer 2012.

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    Books based on real-life or existing fiction

    Some books draw their inspiration from other people's work or from real-life events, and then invent a corresponding story -- something that might have happened. Here are a few:

    Daisy Buchannan's Daughter -- the story of what became of the young Pamela Buchannan from The Great Gatsby.
    March -- what was going on with the March sisters' father while the story of Little Women was unfolding?

    Then I came across a few that use the Kennedy assassination, and its characters, to create new fiction:
    11/22/62, Stephen King
    Libra, Don DeLillo
    Oswald's Tale, Norman Mailer

    As it turns out, all of the above are authors whom I have always wanted to read, but never have. Time to crack those spines.

    Friday, June 1, 2012

    Mattie's World (Fever, 1793 – Walking Tour)

    The historic city of Philadelphia is just across the Delaware River from New Jersey and is worth a trip for many reasons, not least of which is putting yourself in Mattie's world of the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic as depicted in Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful young adult historical novel Fever, 1793.

    Start where Mattie says her family's coffeehouse was located (coffee cup icon), at the corner of 7th Street and Market Street (then called High Street). Now there is a Dunkin' Donuts on one of these corners where Anderson may very well have imagined the coffeehouse to have been located.

    Then head two blocks east on Market Street (towards the Delaware River). Between 6th and 5th Streets, you'll find the sight of President Washington's residence in Philadelphia (yellow house icon). The house was demolished in the 1800s, but recent archeological work has been done on the site and you can see down into the old basement.

    Keep heading east until you get to Third Street. In 1793, this whole route would have been a bustling open-air market. Mattie was forbidden by her mother to shop any closer to the waterfront than Third Street (indicated on map with red line). It was feared that the fever would be caught more easily there. Make a left on Third Street and then a right onto Church Street to find Christ Church (purple balloon icon). Look up. The steeple was added in 1754 and for 50 years after this addition Christ Church held the distinction of being the tallest building in North America. Mattie would have heard the bells from this church ring every time a person died of Yellow Fever.

    After visiting this historic church and its surrounding grave yard, head back toward Third Street and Market Street. Keep walking south on Third until you get to Chestnut Street. Make a right. Between Fifth Street and Sixth Street, you will find Congress Hall (flag icon), where Congress met from 1790 to 1800. Mattie could see this building from her bedroom window.

    There are some other locations on the map (like Bush Hill Hospital and the town where Mattie and her grandfather were headed). They are beyond walking distance, but it may give you an idea of how far Mattie was from home.



    View Mattie's World, Fever 1793 in a larger map

    Monday, May 28, 2012

    Inspiration for great theater

    Venus in Furs by Ritter von Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

     "You are cold, while you yourself fan flames. By all means wrap yourself in your despotic furs, there is no one to whom they are more appropriate, cruel goddess of love and of beauty!"

    After seeing the Broadway play, Venus in Fur by David Ives, I felt compelled to read his inspiration. The play is brilliant, telling the story of a young actress who shows up late and disheveled for a casting call for an adaptation of the 19th century erotic novel, Venus in Furs.

    The novel has received some praise in its own right, but I didn't love it. I do love the fact that a gifted playwright can use mediocre 19th century Austrian erotica as the spark he needed to turn out a masterpiece. I'm glad I read the book but only to see that anything, if given to a playwright and actors with powerful talents, can be turned into a work of art on stage.

    Why you should consider it:
    • read this book before you see the play; you will get more out of it
    Why you might hold off:
    • the story, a short novella, is tedious at times
    • definitely not for kids
    Local alert: New York City is a stone's throw for many of us. If you can, read this short novella and then see the more intriguing play on Broadway Venus in Fur by David Ives at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street.

    The True Tale of a Panicked City

    An American Plague by Jim Murphy

    "Without realizing it, the president set a constitutional crisis in motion when he exited the city. Many people, Thomas Jefferson and future president James Madison included, felt that Washington could not legally convene Congress anywhere but within the city limits of Philadelphia. Without Congress to pass laws and appropriate money, the workings of the federal government would eventually come to a grinding halt.

    "Two days after the president left, and even before he reached his Virginia home, a meteorite fell out of the morning sky and thudded into Third Street. In a city that was fast falling apart, it was seen as an omen that even worse things were yet to come."

    Jim Murphy, in his non-fiction account for kids entitled An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, provides an engrossing account of how yellow fever gripped the new capital of the United States and sent citizens, businesses, and government into a state of disarray and panic. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see President Washington leave the city and to be unable to conduct the business of government from outside the city limits. All this while corpses piled up in the streets, food delivery nearly ceased, and a meteorite choose this time and place to make its impact.

    Also everyone at that time was convinced that Yellow Fever was spread through person-to-person contact, which has now proven to not be the case, and Thomas Jefferson predicted that "yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in the nation."

    It is also interesting how the outbreak of yellow fever may have steered the history of the young United States.At the time that yellow fever broke out, many Americans were furious with President Washington because of his decision to remain neutral in France's battle with England. John Adams, recalling the riots outside President Washington's Philadelphia residence, said, "The coolest and firmest minds... have given their opinion to me, that nothing but the yellow fever... could have saved the United States from a  total revolution of government."

    The book also talks about the attacks that black nurses came under both during and after the plague. The Free African Society organized to help those in need and black nurses, sometimes being the only ones willing to take on the task, could command lofty wages as white families bid up prices. However, black nurses often worked long hours for little or no pay. Just after the epidemic subsided, Mathew Carey published a best-selling book, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia. The book accused the black population of taking advantage of the city's white residents during a crisis. In January 1794, two African-American leaders in the city, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote a rebuttal, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793: and a Refutation of Some Censures, Thrown upon Them in Some Late Publications. According to Murphy, the book is "the very first document published in the United States in which leaders of the black community confronted an accuser directly and attempted to articulate the depth of their anger."

    Yellow fever has had some interesting effects on history throughout the years. In 1801, Haitian slaves revolted against the French. Napoleon sent an army of approximately 29,000 soldiers to crush the rebellion. The army killed 150,000 Haitians during their stay but then yellow fever infected the army. Twenty-six thousand French soldiers died. France lost the island and its hopes for domination in the New World. Two years later, in 1803, France sold its North American territory to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

    When a team of doctors, headed by Walter Reed, announced in 1900 that mosquitoes were responsible for the spread of the disease, the theory was quickly denounced as crazy. The Washington Post said, "Of all the sill and nonsensical rigmarole of yellow fever that has yet found its way into print -- and there has been enough of it to build a fleet -- the silliest beyond compare is to be found in the arguments and theories generated by a mosquito hypothesis."

    Since then, however, it has been confirmed that yellow fever is indeed spread by mosquitoes. Many efforts to control them, such as eliminating standing water, have been very successful and a vaccination was developed to control the spread of the disease. Some efforts, however, such as the use of DDT, created their own problems. Yellow fever has now been wiped out in the United States but the book ends with a warning about its return.

    Why you should consider it:
    • the book brings to life a specific time and place with a great drama unfolding. A good amount of broader history is woven in as well, providing a great learning experience for kids as well as an engrossing read
    Why you might hold off:
    • Reluctant readers may find the whole book too dense to take on at once
    Local alert: Jim Murphy, a prolific and award-winning writer for young adults, lives in Maplewood, NJ. Plus, many New Jersey kids are within a stone's throw of Philadelphia, where this plague took hold. A visit to the old section of the city, which contains many original and reproduced 18th century homes, can give kids and adults a feeling for what the city might have been like in 1793.

    A world falls apart

    Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

    "How could the city have changed so much? Yellow fever was wrestling the life out of Philadelphia, infecting the cobblestones, the trees, the nature of the people. Was I living through another nightmare?"

    Fever, 1793 opens on a hot summer day in Philadelphia in 1793. Our heroine, the somewhat lazy 16-year-old Matilda "Mattie" Cook, is just trying to rouse herself from bed. Mattie's mother and grandfather run a thriving coffeehouse that is a central hub of the young nation's then capital city. We can see Philadelphia and its wide variety of people from Mattie's interesting vantage point. She comes into contact with African-American servants, businessmen, government officials, and well-do-so Philadelphia society. Then yellow fever envelopes the city and Mattie's world collapses.

    Young readers (Publisher's Weekly recommends the book for ages 10 to 14) will quickly become engrossed in Mattie's world and be amazed at how quickly a comfortable and secure young life can come apart. It is clear that the loved and somewhat coddled Mattie isn't ready to grow up, but history pushes on, sweeping Mattie up in its current. Mattie, and the city of Philadelphia will be forever changed after the hot, death-filled late summer of 1793.

    The plot moves along relatively well, although at times it seemed that the pace could have been quicker. The characters are diverse and realistic, and the portrait of the time and place is vivid. Each chapter begins with an actual quote from the times, which sets a tone of reality before each fictional scene. The books ends with a short history of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which was an interesting read on its own.

    Why you should consider it:
    • the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia is a fascinating part of early U.S. history that kids will probably enjoy learning about
    • the characters are well developed and many kids will identify with the sheltered, but ultimately strong, Mattie
    • the book is light on graphic violence and other heavy themes

    Why you might hold off:
    • at times the plot seemed to stall a bit and very reluctant readers may lose interest. For most kids, though, the book will hold their attention
    Local alert: Many New Jersey kids are within a stone's throw of Philadelphia, where Mattie's story takes place. Many 18th century homes are still there -- giving kids and adults a feeling for Mattie's world. See here for a quick walking tour of Mattie's city.

    Friday, May 25, 2012

    A harrowing tale of slavery and resilience

    Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen

    "They have to read and write. We all have to read and write so we can write about this -- what they doing to us. It has to be written."

    This is a very short novel, with a punch. It is the story of Nightjohn, an African-American slave just before the Civil War. He escaped to freedom but returned to teach other slaves to read and to write. What he and the other victims endure is horrifying; the cruelty of the slave owners is shocking; and how people can survive under such brutal conditions is amazing.

    Publishers Weekly recommends this book for ages 12 and up, but I would be careful giving this book to a sensitive 12 year old. The book covers topics such as what happens when a slave girl gets her period, mothers being separated from their children forever, beatings, and forced breeding. However, the book depicts a time in US history in an honest and compelling way and I recommend it for parents and educators who believe that their students are ready for these topics. It is likely that the book will raise many students' curiosity about slavery and the American Civil War.

    Why you should consider it:
    • to learn about slavery in the United States
    • to read about intriguing characters
    • to begin a discussion about the history of human rights in America and elsewhere
    Why you might hold off:
    • not every kid is ready for these heavy topics