Category Archives: book review

The 2017 Newbery Books

Each year I anticipate the winner and honor books for the Newbery Prize. Past winners have included authors I regularly seek out, like Kate DiCamillo  (Flora and Ulysses). Among my favorite winners are a book about a gorilla (The One and Only Ivan) and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpernia Tate.  One quote from that tale of an eleven year old budding scientist still rings true: “It was too bad, but sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day…”

This year’s winner and honor books include a fantasy – The Girl Who Drank the Moon -magic is often a theme in Newbery books.  As a fan of “The Canterbury Tales,” I look forward to reading the Honor Book – The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz.  Another honor book, Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow found its way into book club discussions, as its theme of bullying and discrimination mirrored present-day angst.  Finally, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, completed this year’s winners, with the music of poetry and the rhythm of song telling a story of history.

Read them all – it won’t take much of your time – and you will find satisfying tales written well.  Sometimes a good children’s book can be better than one written for adults.

9781616205676_p0_v4_s192x300   The Girl Who Drank the Moon

This year’s winner of the Newbery Prize – Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – delivers other worldly magic – we all need some right now. In a world similar to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” one person is sacrificed each year to appease an evil witch and keep the rest of the village safe – for another year.  Unknown to the villagers, the baby is rescued each time by a good witch of the Forest, who safely whisks the child off to a new family in a safer place, while the evil witch, disguised as mother superior in the local convent, thrives on the sorrow and despair of the sacrificing town.

One year the good witch, Xan, who shares her home with an ancient Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, keeps the baby.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl light from the moon, instead of the usual fare of stardust, Luna becomes enmagicked with amazing powers.  Xan subdues Luna’s powers until she is thirteen, when she joins forces with her mother, imprisoned all these years in a tower, whose magic changes paper birds into lethal weapons,  and Antain, a young man from the village with a good heart whose baby would be next on the list to be sacrificed.  Of course, evil is defeated and a new world order of hope replaces the misery.

Each minor character has notes of the familiar in everyone’s life.  Antain disappoints his mother’s ambition for him by leaving the head Council and following his own yearning to be a carpenter.  The little dragon never seems to grow up, until a crisis tears away his youthful outlook and forces him to deliver.  The old Swamp Monster offers steady and sage advice and comfort when needed.  But, my favorite character in this story is Ethyne, who knows the evil witch from her days as a novice, before she left to marry Antain.  Ethyne’s outlook is always positive and cheery, with a steady sense of self which she uses to steer both her husband and the despairing villagers as well as her former subservient connections in the Convent.  Ethyne is that voice of common sense who might bring you a cup of tea when you are down, or suggest a plan to overcome your inertia when you need motivation.  She is someone everyone should have as a friend.

Related Review:  Wolf Hollow

 

the movie “Arrival” based on the short story – “The Story of Your Life”

51zipo22i7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_  Not until I found the short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” in his collection of short stories – Stories of Your Life and Others – did I understand the movie Arrival with Amy Adams.  Now I get its message on the importance of language and cooperation, buried in a science fiction drama reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

Someone told me to watch carefully as the story unfolds, and it is good advice – but I may have to watch it again anyway.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks’ encounter with aliens, and her attempt to learn their language is mixed up with her own life and the trauma of her marriage and daughter’s death.  The differences between the written story and the movie had me admiring the screenwriter’s adaptation of the complex linguistic and mathematical theories Chiang uses in his short story; however, Chiang’s explanation of Fermat’s physics Principal of Least Time would have be helpful in understanding Dr. Banks’ flashes of memory. Unfortunately, it was not included in the movie – maybe to keep the viewer guessing until the explanation of events at the end.

In another Chiang short story – Babylon – in the same collection, Chiang theorizes about the notion of time.  As he describes the building of the tower of Babel to reach heaven,  the main character, Hillalum, discovers the same truth as Dr. Louise Banks – “Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.”  Chiang envisions time in a circular continuum.

In his short story about the aliens landing on several sites across the Earth, including China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and Europe, Chiang focuses on the importance of immersion in someone else’s culture to fully understand it, with the scientists and linguists working together to solve the puzzle of the aliens’ visit.  Their purpose for coming is difficult to understand without language.

In the movie, someone at one of the sites gets nervous and shoots first. The aliens are forgiving, and thankfully, the movie stays true to the communication theme and avoids becoming Star Wars.  Instead, nations come together to do something that seems more like science fiction today than ever – they work together.

arrival_movie_poster   If you have not yet seen the movie, you might want to read the short story first, and try not to get lost in some of the technical jargon.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks is at the core of both; just remember to look forward, not back.  And consider what you would do if you could see your whole life, from beginning to end – would you make the same decisions?

Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction in books, I am enjoying Chiang’s collection of thought-provoking short stories.  At the end of the book, Chiang offers “Story Notes,” explaining his inspiration for each -for “Story of Your Life,” Chiang notes his interest in telling a story “about a person’s response to the inevitable.”   Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future…. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now…To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient.  Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dot who knows and loves you no matter what you are.'”

The future will get here, no matter what we do.

Edna Ferber’s So Big

510bo6vlmhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_   Needing an old classic to soothe my brow from the news of political appointments, I found Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, So Big.  Although written in 1924, the story addresses the disparity still felt today as we juggle the meaning and price of success in the world.

The adaptations of Edna Ferber’ work into movies and plays are as famous as her books: among them, Giant, Showboat, Stage Door, Dinner at Eight.  The 1932 version of So Big, starring Barbara Stanwyck motivated me to find the book in the library. So Big is the story of Selina, the schoolmarm turned farmer who never lost her view of nature’s beauty from the moment she saw the plains outside of Chicago.   I may have read it in school years ago, but this time, So Big brought its message and comfort to me with the reminder of what is really important in life.  For those who would disregard music, art, and literature, and see them as inferior to hard science or practical engineering, Ferber’s story is a lesson in integrity.

Although So Big focused on the spiritual and financial struggles of a farm wife, similarities to the author’s life lay the foundation.  Ferber’s parents were Jewish shopkeepers who ran a general store in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her mother took over the family business when her father began to go blind, just as Selina takes over and improves the farm after her husband Pervus dies.  Within 283 pages, Ferber spans Selina’s life, aging her from a young girl who travels from place to place with her gambling father to a young schoolteacher and then wife of a farmer, then widow, and finally an old wrinkled woman on her farm.

As she raises her son, Dirk – fondly called So Big – she tries to model the value of hard work and the appreciation of beauty, giving him education and opportunities she never had (remember this is the turn of the twentieth century).  Ideas and being able to create are important – even if it takes years of work and pain. Sadly her reward is not a bright son curious and inventive, but a money-grubbing bond salesman who wears bespoke suits.

Roelfe, the young boy she mentored when she was a schoolteacher, returns years later as a middle-aged artist still struggling but content with his work and his life –  representing the strong contrast with her son who never has enough and never is happy, and, as a result, cannot get the one thing he really wants.   Because despite what  we hear lately, real life isn’t about who can yell the loudest or make the most money, but the satisfaction of a life well led.

“I want you to realize this whole thing called life is just a grand adventure. The trick is to act in it and look out at the same time. And remember: no matter what happens – good or bad – it’s just so much velvet.”

 

 

 

Conclave

9780451493446_p0_v1_s192x300  In Conclave, Robert Harris tears away the illusion of the Pope’s selection as the sacred inspiration of holy men and exposes the political machinations and corruption behind the scenes.  Although he dots the scenes with familiar Latin invocations and old-fashioned prayers, the inside debates and secret maneuvering are worthy of a political party convention.

Four candidates vie for the top job in the church: Tremblay, a Canadian who knows how to spin the media; Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; Tedesco, an archconservative Italian from the old school of Latin Masses; and Aldo Bellini, an intellectual Italian who would continue the Church’s reform.  Cardinal Lomeli, the well-meaning Dean of the College of Cardinals, manages his colleagues and the vote, as behind the scenes revelations threaten the process.

As the plot slowly builds to what seems an inevitable conclusion – the naming of an obscure third world cardinal who miraculously appears almost too late for the closed meeting – Harris turns the plot upside down.  Like the reference Harris makes to the painting of Peter, the first Pope, who hangs feet up on the cross, the papacy flips head over heals.  The last impenetrable glass ceiling is cracked but almost no one knows.

I read Conclave in one night – a thriller without a murder.

The Vanishing Velázquez 

l54j4lkjWhen Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany.  Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.

9781476762180_p0_v3_s192x300 Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez.  As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but  also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.

Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller.  Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history.  If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.

As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art.  Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar  palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.

As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family.  Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings.  Philip IV,  Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs.  With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions.  His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.

The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book.  Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City.  Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting.  The big mystery, however, is never solved.  Where is the painting today?

Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent  descendants of Snare can be found.  Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:

“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever.  The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”

Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.

Related ReviewThe Art Forger