October 05, 2011

book club: march 2011 edition

Over the course of a couple days in March I re-read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and read Debbie and James Howe’s Bunnicula for the first time. Bunnicula was darling: a charming story of a ‘vampire’ bunny told from the perspective of a family’s dog. It spawned many sequels and while it is clearly written for children, you can understand why parents continued to read it to their children. The narrator’s – the dog’s - voice is so charming and clever that even the simplest story has great appeal.

I read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game for the first (and only other) time when I was 11 or 12. I distinctly remember being in my sixth grade classroom and, when finishing this cleverly crafted mystery, realizing how entertaining and smart books could be. The novella begins with the death of Sam Westing, the richest man in town. His great fortune is promised to the winner of the Westing game – the game he set into place to expose his killer. A broad, richly-developed cast of characters is introduced as players in the game and much intrigue, suspicion and strategy ensues. For being so short, the book is dense with tightly and expertly wound storytelling. I was so happy to find that The Westing Game held up twenty years later. I immediately bought copies for my niece and nephew – both big young readers.

That’s it. There’s not much more to say. Truly good books – even those intended for children – can be great on so many levels. It’s always worth spending some time with them.

Title: Bunnicula
Author: Debbie and James Howe
Read: NYC
Format: tiny paperback
Sweet, charming, cute: Three out of five stars

Title: The Westing Game
Author: Ellen Raskin
Read: NYC
Format: tiny paperback
Smart, intriguing, well-crafted: Five out of five stars

A Note

So it’s been awhile since I last posted anything. The main reason is that I got stuck on what to write about the books I read after Just Kids. Also, I haven’t been reading so quickly. I’m not doing anything else. I’m just not reading that much. Sue me.

Anyway, I’m going to write up something very quick about the two books that I read for March book club and then I’m going to try to catch up after that. We’ll see how it goes.

Here we go.

February 20, 2011

Just Kids :: Patti Smith

Title: Just Kids [non-fiction #2]
Author: Patti Smith
Read: Boston, NYC
Format: trade paperback

Patti Smith is cool. Everybody knows that. Robert Mapplethorpe is cool too. And I think most people know that as well. In Just Kids, Smith writes about their relationship and friendship against the backdrop of NYC in the late 60s and early 70s and all the art/artists/rock/roll/poetry of the era.

For the most part, it is well-written, and even when it isn't, it's so personal and earnest that you grant it some leeway. Plus, her lyrical memories are fun to peek into, even when the book starts to get a little tedious, which it definitely does.

Beyond being sometimes tedious, Just Kids has other shortcomings as well, I think. It's name-droppy (mostly to the effect of era-dropping the ultra-cool 70s in NYC) and the writing is often over-wrought. But even though these criticisms are things that generally make me dislike books, I still found Just Kids really, really interesting. Her New York covers similar ground to my own and considering the significant differences was, well, interesting.

In my estimation, Patti Smith is not the best writer or musician or artist
of her generation. But in this book, she tells the story of her love of Robert Mapplethorpe (and the lives they built with each other's support) so sincerely that it more than makes up for any nitpicks I might have about any of her work, let alone this one. Besides, who am I anyway? I'm certainly not as cool as Patti Smith so I'll just shut up now.

Touching despite its flaws. And despite it making me feel un-artistic and unaccomplished.
3 out of 5 stars

February 13, 2011

The Magicians :: Lev Grossman

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Read: NYC, Boston
Format: Kindle

It took me a long time (3+ weeks) to read The Magicians because, well, it wasn't very interesting. Friends and the internets alike suggested that the book was like The Secret History meets Harry Potter meets Narnia meets etc. And it was. It just somehow managed to be boring too. Because those great books were much more than just their great concepts, they were peopled with nuanced, three-dimensional characters and fascinating, page-turning plots.

The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater as he grows from bookish, awkward nerd to powerful magician to fantasy adventurer. The first half or so chronicles Quentin's discovery of his magical gifts and his years of training at Brakebills, the magic college. Grossman lingers in this setting for far too long and somehow manages to do it no justice. By the time Quentin graduates I was left feeling like Brakebills was a shallow sketch filled with a series of experiences. It lacked dimension even after taking SO LONG to get through.

After graduation, Quentin and his friends move to New York City where they do standard Reality Bites-ish, angsty things until they find themselves busy with an adventure. The adventure takes them to Fillory - the imaginary-or-is-it setting of a children's book series. They see crazy things and meet amazing creatures. They fight for their lives and the liberation of this fantasy world.

The book is ambitious in scope and creativity, but I think in the end falls short of being truly good. Rather than a rich world with an exciting, adventurous arc, we get a string of fantastical scenes and vignettes. Grossman fails to create a world, despite pages and pages of effort. I don't mean to be as harsh as I sound,
there's just a lot of squandered potential in these pages. If The Magicians was 25% shorter and had a little more story editing, I think it could have been really memorable and even great. As it is, though, I think it's really just okay.

I don't regret reading it, but I don't quite recommend it either.
3 out of 5 stars, but only because I'm feeling kind of generous

January 19, 2011

The Twenty-One Balloons :: William Pene du Bois

Title: The Twenty-One Balloons [book club selection, RC]
Author: William Pene du Bois
Read: MA, NYC
Format: Kindle

This month, RC chose two children's/YA books for book club. Both were excellent, but I think this one suffered (in my esteem) from having been read after the wonderful When You Reach Me. It was a fun and colorful and immensely imaginative read. Though, compared to When You Reach Me, which I think is a great book for kids TO read, I feel that The Twenty-One Balloons is a wonderful story to have read to you.

In it, Professor William Waterman Sherman sets out on a hot air balloon adventure. He is discovered too-soon after his departure on the other side of the country with twenty giant balloons rather than the one he left with. The bulk of the tale is his recount of his adventure on and escape from the volcanic island of Krakatoa.


- the characters, especially the professor, are beyond charming
- Krakatoa is cleverly conceived, both physically and socially
- the Krakatoan inventions are adorably clever
- the story is so sweet and fable-like, you expect it to be moralistic in the end; happily, it's not
- there are cute illustrations

If you would like to rekindle a sense of childlike wonder, or if you are looking for a book to share with a wee person, pick this one up.

Sweet, earnest, charming.
4 out of 5 stars