Friday, November 26, 2010

National Book Award Reviews - YA Fiction

I think it is a mistake to assume young adults won't notice that a book is preachy just because they are young. I think it is a mistake to award books for being didactic without thinking first if they are enjoyable. In that regard, the National Book Award people made some interesting choices as finalists for what they call the "Young People's Literature" category. Let me just say that to me, the majority of the books chosen for the finalist list were clearly chosen by adults because of what could be learned, not because of how good they were.

Luckily, a few escaped and made it into my first category, the definitely read list.

Dark Water by Laura McNeal was the hardest book on the list to find, but I finally found it from a library in Annapolis, Maryland. At first, I was worried this was another didactic book with a plot thinly veiling a lesson to young people about migrant workers, but it soon shifted into a beautifully love story between a young girl who lives on an avocado farm outside San Diego but doesn't speak Spanish (really?) and an illegal worker who can't speak. The ending is fearless, and I think young girls in particular would be drawn in by this story.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi was a surprisingly enjoyable read. I had read The Windup Girl earlier in the year but enjoyed this one much more. It is about kids who live in a post-disaster future America with prevalent hurricanes and the only way to really make a living is to salvage materials from the ships that regularly wreck on the shore. It is gritty and I really enjoyed it.

The next category are the books that are good, kind of, but read rather preachy for my tastes. Boys and girls, let's open our books to page....

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine covers a lot of Very Important Issues - school shootings, dealing with death and loss, Autism Spectrum, etc. The main character, Caitlin, is learning how to make friends while she tries to find closure for her brother's death. I thought it was heartfelt, and I think it might make kids want to try to be more accepting of people who are different than them. But should we have to make them through fictional characters? See, that's the whole issue I have. Apparently enough people believed so, because this book won in the category.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia chronicles the crazy summer of three sisters who are sent to Oakland to live with their mother shortly after the death of MLK Jr. She turns out to be involved with the Black Panthers, and the girls learn about the movement and explore California. It is more than a little unbelievable, and packages up the time period a little too perfectly, but the oldest daughter is an interesting independent female, which is nice for young people. At least, from an adult's perspective it is.

The last book, I just didn't like.

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers is a hopeless story about a boy in jail who will probably never escape the system. If I was supposed to get more out of it, I'd love to hear a counterargument. The author is known for working in the juvenile system, but I did not find him to be inspiring at all. Maybe reality isn't. At least it wasn't preachy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

So Much for That was one of the books selected as a finalist in the fiction category for the National Book Award. They have already picked winners, but I'm still slogging my way through all the finalists.

I previously reviewed Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey, since it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. So Much for That is only the second of the five novels that were finalists for this year's prize in fiction.

The majority of this book is probably the biggest downer I have ever read, and I've read some depressing books! Add that to a swirling prominent preachy thread of the problems with the health care system in the United States, and you have a recipe for a disaster. Most depressing books have me internally begging with the author to just get on with it and to give me my life back. Despite what most critics say, I almost always feel that way about McEwan (except with Solar), and the last Franzen made me feel that way too.

Except. Except, except, except. Shriver writes fearlessly and honestly, with excellently written characters, and this made it interesting and pleasing to read. I read the majority of it in one day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review - The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

I remember Nicholas Carr because of an article he wrote back in 2008, Is Google Making Us Stupid?. According to his notes on The Shallows, he actually expanded on the ideas of the article to write the book.

I picked up this book for a variety of reasons. As a librarian who often does information literacy/fluency instruction, I want to learn as much as I can about how students think and process information. We make decisions all the time about materials - do we stick with print or order eBooks? Is an online periodical sufficient? Can we discard our print reference collection? The answers are not always easy. I can't shake Nicholson Baker and his harsh judgment on libraries, ever since reading Double Fold, and that was also in the back of my mind as I read. The Shallows is a clear picture of where information has come from compared to how we tend to access it and use it in the present day.

The other perspective I'm bringing to this is that of a reader, a great lover of the printed page, of holding a book in my hands and shutting out the world. Carr discusses changing attitudes toward reading at great length. People abandoning the idea of reading because the internet makes it easier, because they no longer "have to," or because they are finding entertainment elsewhere.

"We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.' The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the 'power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital' or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of 'an increasingly arcane hobby.'" (108)

The idea of deep reading gets discussed, as well as what it can do for a learner to shut off everything and focus on reading an entire book, rather than living solely in the shallow world of the internet. I also enjoyed the bits about the history of the printed page, and all the prophets of doom throughout the centuries who have wrongly predicted the end of the book.

I think this is a valuable read for anyone interested in how people learn, how technology changes our brains, and the value of reading.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Literary Blog Hop Week 2 - Most Difficult Literary Work

Literary Blog Hop
This week's question comes from Debbie Nance at Readerbuzz
What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult?

I imagine that since it asks "read," that implies actually finishing. Otherwise I'd be talking about how many times I have started-but-not-finished Ulysses by James Joyce. My only strategy with that one is to read it out loud, but I still end up putting it aside for something else. Nothing like a difficult book to get you to develop reader's ADD!

Some books that I've tackled that sometimes are considered difficult, such as Gravity's Rainbow, Les Miserables, and so on - these have been so enjoyable that it seemed completely worth it.

I'm going to choose Moby Dick for my answer to this question. Ah, Melville. I read this along with a group that was reading a chapter a day, and as Moby Dick has 365 chapters, it took a year. If I had read it on my own, I would surely have read it more quickly, so the process itself was a little tedious. I know this is supposed to be one of the great novels of life and death and obsession, and I definitely enjoyed the bits that had interesting characters and plot. Right when I would get into the story, Melville would go off on a tangent and talk about whale biology or the history of the shipping industry. Difficult books might give me reading ADD, but Melville clearly had writing ADD! Revenge, redemption, oh look, there's a pony! It was distracting and I wanted to abandon ship (har har) more than once, just on principle.

At the same time, I think of how many times reading one book has sent me off in search of more information about history or philosophies or people represented within it. Perhaps Melville was doing me a favor by providing all the possible context within the pages of one integrated novel!

As many difficult books as I have enjoyed, I still have several major ones I haven't gotten around to reading. I am trying to decide between War and Peace and Infinite Jest as the book I'll tackle during the winter holidays.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

National Book Award Finalists 2010 - Poetry

The finalists for the National Book Award were announced on October 13, but only three out of the five poetry finalists are available for purchase as of this posting date.

The first nominee is The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber. The poems are invaded by deliberate intelligensia, which is sometimes effective and sometimes annoying. It was less grating on the second and third reads through. Clearly, if I knew Aurelius as well as Graber, I could have gotten much more out of the entire second section, although I appreciated the idea of using poetry to reflect to another type of literature, and the threads of connectivity moving through.

The key themes seem to be loneliness and disappointment. The poem the book is named for even includes the line "Loneliness, our one defendable empire." (The Eternal City)

"A yellow wind whispers its one note over & over into the willow's ten thousand salt-blistered ears. Just now, only this - something so small not even you have given it a name." (Florum Principi)

The next volume is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. This was easier to read, as it seemed more experience and emotion based than needing to have read obscure writings by historical figures. Some history is involved, largely to do with African Americans that have had public struggles and victories. Then there are some poems inspired by the Japanese presentation style of pecha kucha, which was a little startling.

Don't get me wrong, I actually really enjoyed this book of poetry, but I was left feeling as if I haven't lived enough. But really, Hayes is using the experiences of others in his poetry, but the way he writes makes them seem like he has also shared in those experiences. He makes them personal rather than universal, and this adds a power that I really liked.

"Friend, sometimes the wind's scuttle makes the reeds
In the body vibrate. Sometimes the noise gives up its code
And the music is better at saying what I meant to say."
-from "Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist"

The third book of poetry, I don't even feel qualified to judge. She bases the poems (loosely, I guess) on George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip. What? If I hadn't read that, I would never have made that connection. The poems are sparse and emotional, not really cats and bricks. I almost wish I didn't knew. I think I'd like them more without that bizarre connection.

Here is a great example of the imagery she creates:

Ignatz Domesticus
Then one day she noticed the forest had begun to bleed into her waking life.
There were curved metal plates on the trees to see around corners.
She thought to brush her hand against his thigh.
She thought to trace the seam of his jeans with her thumbnail.
The supersaturated blues were beginning to pixillate around the edges, to become a kind of grammar.
She placed a saucer of water under her lamp and counted mosquitoes as they drowned.
Soot amassed in drifts in the corners of the room.
She pressed her thumb into the hollow of his throat for a while and then let him go.

(Does anyone else see cartoons? I'd be happy to have someone explain the connection to me, and shame me in my ignorance.)

I hope that at some point, By the Numbers by James Richardson and One with Others by C.D. Wright become available for purchase, so I can compare all of them with each other.

Until then, I'd pick the Hayes book as the top poetry finalist so far. I don't think the National Book Award people pick one book in every category, but I'm going to start there.

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop
For the first ever Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, I am supposed to talk about one of my favorite books and why it would be considered "literary."

That word, literary, it just begs to be snooty and elitist, doesn't it? But to me it is the difference between artisan and supermarket (see my baking blog for a much more developed baking story!), mainstream and indie, blockbuster and art house film. Most literary novels don't end up as mass-market paperbacks.

I have a lot of favorites that are obviously literary, but I'm going to choose Justine by Lawrence Durrell. I would call it literary because it combines historical accuracy with complex characters and a multifaceted story. I love it because the writing is beautiful, one of those reading experiences where I would read passages twice because of the sheer joy of it, and as soon as I finished it I went back and read the beginning again. I don't have this experience with every literary novel, but I will never forget my first time with Justine.

I am really interesting in exploring novels that are selected for award lists, and most of those are probably considered literary. That is what this blog has been about so far, and there is a long queue of books to read and reflect on along those lines.