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.


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