Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Someone Else's Contest

Sometimes I feel like this blog is more a personal journey through an obsession than it is about, you know, books.

But here, I'm participating in the blogosphere!  Don't you want to win a copy of Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts? Well, if you want to win, you should check out Between These Pages and leave a comment there to enter the giveaway! This is a great blog in general if you are responsible for or even acquainted with any young readers.  She gives a clear picture of which books are stand-outs, which deal best with interesting or popular subject, and which might have iffy content (depending on your idea of iffy--is your kid easily scared?  Squicked out?  Confused?  Don't worry--it's all spelled out).  Honestly, I get a lot of good recommendations for middle grade books that I want to read for my own purposes, as well as the best picture books and gifts for older kids.

I've always meant to read this book, and that was before I found out that it's a story about a family dealing with autism in the '30s, before there was such a diagnosis.  Some folks know I've worked in early childhood autism education, so it's a subject that really interests me, and I've read a million memoirs about parenting an autistic child.  I thought I'd give you a quick guide to my favorites, in honor of National Autism Awareness Month.

The Siege: A Family's Journey Into the World of an Autistic ChildLet Me Hear Your Voice: A Family's Triumph over AutismExiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with AutismThe Ride Together: A Brother and Sister's Memoir of Autism in the FamilyGeorge & Sam: Two Boys, One Family, and Autism

The Siege, by Clara Claiborne Park.  My favorite, by a million miles.  I read this book in college, before I ever met an autistic child, and I thought it was beautifully written, honest, and incredibly touching.  Then, after I had spent a few years teaching autistic kids, I read it again, and I was blown away by how note perfect the account is.  Every layer--every behavior, every interpretation of the behavior, and then every re-evaluation of those interpretations--captures the experience of watching these children and trying to imagine their inner worlds.  Even if you have  no interest in autism whatsoever, I truly recommend this book; I consider it to be beautiful.

Let Me Hear Your Voice, by Catherine Maurice.  This book gets some justified flak for its perfect-world happy ending.  With an autistic child, even the best outcome is almost never a complete disappearance of all autistic symptoms, as this mother describes.  The strength of this story, though, is that it's a specific and detailed account of an intervention using Applied Behavioral Analysis, which is the style of therapy I practiced, and one with the best documented outcomes.  There are a lot of stories about "rescuing" children from autism, and quite a few of them are sketchy, to say the least.  This one seems somewhat exaggerated to me, but it's not sketchy; I've seen this in action.

Exiting Nirvana, by Clara Claiborne Park.  This is actually a follow-up to The Siege, from the perspective of the parent of an adult child with fairly severe autism.  It's interesting to see that the further Jessy comes, the further she has to go--the more independence she's able to have and the more she's able to figure out the "normal" world, the more complicated situations and expectations she encounters.  A "real" job requires dealing with customers; traveling independently means dealing with the unexpected.  I wish Clara Park had written more books, because she's such a gifted writer.

The Ride Together, by Paul and Judy Karasik.  This is an interesting story told in both essays and comics.  What I think was most interesting was the perspective; the brother and sister of an autistic man relate both what it was like to grow up with him, and what it is like now, in middle age, to be his sibling, to worry about him and love him.  It's a perspective that I enjoyed very much.

George and Sam, by Charlotte Moore.  As the parent of one child, I think about how hard it would be to parent two, or to parent an autistic child.  I'm in awe of Charlotte Moore, who brings such a clear head and a keen eye to the seemingly insurmountable job of parenting multiple autistic kids.  It's actually quite common to have multiple siblings with autism; I believe that the chances of having a second autistic child are something like ten times greater than the first.  What I loved about this book was the pure mundanity, and how much it was about parenting.

Those are my stand-outs.  Whether you find the subject interesting or not, I highly recommend that you read The Siege, really.  Clara Park passed away recently, and I can't tell you how sorry I was to hear that.  I had the privilege to meet her when I was in college, and I know she is greatly missed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Suffering for Art

I wish I had more to say, but I am STILL suffering through The Land of Painted CavesIt just goes on and on.  I can't say nothing is happening anymore (at page 568), but it's not much.  And honestly, when someone mentions Wymez, Ayla should not say, "You mean the flint-knapper Jondalar so admires?"  He was almost her father-in-law!  There's no, "wait, which Wymez was that?"  Not even a little.  Grr.

But I'm also reading Hush, by Eishes Chayil.  It's a really fascinating combination between an inside look at the life of Chassidic Jews in New York and more general "that can't happen in our community" story of secrets and their fallout.  The first half of the book is an elegant and tense combination of the two.  The last part is a bit less compelling, since it's shifted from a growing up and coming of age story to something both more painful and awkward; the point where innocence begins to look like ignorance.

This isn't usually something that impresses me, but the author of this book, Eishes Chayil, has really impressed me.  The name is a pesudonym, meaning "Woman of Valor."  She wrote the book in her twenties, and though I can't tell from the afterword, I think it's possible that she's still living in her community.  Whether she is or not, the challenge of learning to believe something that you have been taught not to believe in every way for your whole life--without even the standard American acclimation to provide a counter-view (can you imagine living in New York City and never having heard of Oprah?--takes a presence of mind and strength of character that I can hardly imagine.  In many ways, it's a fascinating book.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Envelope, Please...

And in the category of Worst Book Ever, the winner is....

It is entirely possible that The Land of Painted Caves is the worst book I've ever read.  I'm trying to think of a worse one and I can't.  I went through all the books I've ever read in Goodreads--nothing worse.  Even the ones I didn't finish--nope.

Nothing happens in this book.  People go on long trips to look at painted caves.  Let's look at some passages that illustrate my points.

1) The descriptions.
They reached the lower end of the second loop [of the river], then followed the river only until it headed north again. The forking paths at the bottom of this loop, one toward the east and the other heading north, were more equally worn; it was the north end of the second loop that was opposite the mouth of The River, the place where it flowed into Big River, and that northern path was used as often as the other. Going east across the land, they reached the river again, then followed the trail beside it in a southeast direction.  The volume of water in Big River was considerably less before the place where the water of The River entered the larger stream.  It was there that they decided to camp for the night."

Now, I suppose it's not inherently awful.  There's a lot of description that I can't quite picture--which way the river loops and where the heck they're walking.  But the thing to remember is that this is one paragraph in a two page description of this walk.

2) The repetition.

Levela walked up to Ayla and Wolf. "I think they are getting ready to tell the next story," she said. "Are you staying to hear it?"

"I don't think so," Ayla said. "Jondalar may want to stay. I'll ask him, but I think I'll come back another time to listen to stories. Are you staying?"

"I thought I might see if there is anything good left ot eat. I'm getting a little hungry, but I'm tired, too. I may go back to our camp soon," Levela said.

"I'll go with you to get something to eat. Then I have to pick up Jonayla from your sister." Ayla took a few steps to where Jondalar and the others were talking, and waited until there was a break in the conversation. [nb. She didn't rudely interrupt. Thanks for pointing that out, Jean!] "Are you going to stay to hear the next story?" she asked.

"What do you want to do?"

"I'm getting tired and so is Levela. We thought we'd go and see if there is anything good left to eat," Ayla said.

"That sounds fine to me. We can come back another time and listen to more stories. [In case you were worried they wouldn't hear more stories!] Is Jondecam coming? [Let's go run this full decision past someone else!]" Jondalar said. [nb. he said, she said, Ayla said, Jondalar said. Invariably.]

"Yes, I am." They heard his voice coming toward them. "Wherever you are going." [Thank you, Jondecam, for not making them explain this again.]

The four of them left the storytellers' camp and headed for the area where the food had been gathered together. [In case you weren't following their plans.]
Okay, here's my version of the passage. "Feeling somewhat tired, the women decided to see if there was any good food left, then wander back to camp. Jondalar and Jondecam decided to come along, and the four left the storytellers' camp, promising to return later in the Meeting to hear more stories." Not poetry, but God help us, it's SHORT and CONTAINS ALL THE SAME INFORMATION.

And all the caves in the Land of Painted Caves are the same.

3) The lack of occurrence.  I don't have a quote for this, because you can't quote things that don't happen.  But things keep almost happening, reminding me of what it's like when things really do happen in a story.  There are a few injuries--none of which are to anyone we care about, and none of which any of our famed healers can do anything about.  Of course, there were a lot of fatal injuries in prehistory.  But having a character who's a doctor is not that interesting unless they can actually occasionally do something. 

Because of all the travel, we don't really get to know anyone, so even when something does happen, it's to someone you just met, who you'll leave behind in a few (dozen) pages.  When someone tries to hunt their horses, they don't have to convince them that they're not from the spirit world; they just have to say, hey, don't hunt our horses.  Oh, sorry!  Everything's cool again.  It's the same bag of tricks, but when you're not meeting anyone new or coming up with any new ideas, there's just nothing to show me.

Even the cave paintings, which are mysterious to us, aren't viewed with any imagination.  Every time they see them, someone asks, "Why did they paint this like that?" and the answer is, "Nobody knows.  They were painted by the Ancients."  Cop out!  What's the point of writing about cave people and cave paintings if the cave people don't paint--or even understand--the cave paintings?

You know, I thought I was going to write a well-organized post about my problems here, but really I'm just ranting.  So here's the rant: I really believe this is the worst book I can remember reading, ever.

I'm so, so sorry.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have just done something that's going to be good for me psychologically, I think.  I've tried other methods of doing this before and never had any luck, but today I found the trick.  I knocked 100 books off my to-read list.

And seriously, folks, I'm not even halfway there.  I've got from 700 to 600 in the past hour, and I think I can bring this down below 500 easily.  I can't tell you how good this is for me, psychologically.  My "read" list is longer than my "to read" again.  It's like I can breathe again.

The trick, it turns out, was to create a separate category called "B-list," into which I shunted any book from to-read that I couldn't remember what it was about, where I heard of it, or what possessed me to put it on the list.  Some people might delete these, but I can't do that--at some point it seemed worth reading, and I have to trust that instinct.  At the very least, I don't want to forget that the book exists. 

Also on B-list, we have books that I like to think I'll read, but that I don't harbor a lot of illusions about.  This includes a lot of quality literature (The Book of Night Women, The Shadow of the Wind), classics (Vanity Fair), nonfiction (Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul, The Wishing Year), and mysteries (The Analyst, Medicus).  These are all categories that I read, but not very often.  This is a list that I can go through and say, "Oh, yeah, I wanted to read that."  But the gift is, it leaves my actual to-read list as full of that makes me say, "Oh, yeah, I can't WAIT to read that!"

There is also a sub-category called "Like To Think I Will Read," which really means, "Don't want to read, but feel like I ought to."  That is almost all ponderous, well-reviewed books on subjects that interest me.  Let's not bother going there.

I feel light and free and happy.  I'm going to go metaphorically throw some more books out.  Hooray!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Apparently I Take Requests

You mean I haven't talked about Matched yet?  But it was so impressive!  It reminded me very much of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which is a great compliment.  I don't want to diminish it by making it sound like a knock-off, though--you can see the inspiration, but Ally Condie created her own world and her own characters, and their depth, I think, is even greater than Lowry's.

Not to dump on The Giver.  It reads more like a fable or a parable, and is, I think, aimed at a somewhat younger audience, as the main character is 12 or 13.  Matched is about a girl of 17, in her last year of high school, and reads more like a reality.  There's more texture--you can see more glimpses of the internal lives of the peripheral characters.  You can see the leeway that has been left in the structure of society for individual personality. 

Somehow, too, you also get a deeper grasp of the allure of this totalitarian world.  You feel the appeal of safety, comfort.  These are people who don't feel oppressed--they're living the American Dream.  What they've been given is close enough to what they want, and the options they can conceive are limited by their experience enough, that their satisfaction and fears are very convincing.

And then Condie avoids all the easiest pitfalls of storytelling--all the places where your characters guess what the other is thinking, or at least lack the blind spots of information and understanding that real people have.  How do you love two people at once?  How do you learn to want what you've never even imagined?  There are no missing parts, no anachronisms, no fundamental attribution error here. 

I also loved that Cassia had a great relationship with her parents.  She--and we--learn a lot from them about the average citizen and the compromises that are required to live happily in this world. 

I think the only thing I didn't love about the book--and I won't call it a flaw--was its focus on the teenage romance.  It was actually good, and very well-written, but it was the only thing that firmly pegged the book as YA to me.  Cassia learns to dissent as she is learning to think and feel as an adult, so it all fits together, and the story did hinge around the romance--the Match.  But that lens of romance, which probably did such a great job hooking the YA reader, definitely added a little distance for me as an adult.

Also I love the cover.

Phew!  It was nice to write about a book I loved for a while.  I'll be wrapping up The Left Hand of God tonight, and pulling The Owl Killers back into heavy rotation.  We'll see if that helps or hinders my forward momentum.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Just Whining

Blurgh.  I just have to get this out there.

1) I was just getting into South of Broad, starting to feel the tension, wondering what would happen next, when he jumps forward in time 20 years.  What the heck?  It took you 120 pages to make me care what happened at all, and then you take away any tenuous connection I felt for these characters.  I think this one's out the window.

2) I'm only 15 pages into The Land of Painted Caves, but it's a little painful.  The whole thing reads like the second chapter of a Babysitter's Club book.  "I'm Ayla.  I'm blonde and have blue eyes.  My senses are really well-developed, and I have kind of a weird accent because I was raised by the Clan.  More about them later.  Jondalar is my mate, and he's very tall and sexy, also with blonde hair and blue eyes.  He invented a spear-thrower that lets you throw spears from much farther away.  He has a brother and a sister, and his father is the leader of the Lanzadonii."

3) I'm really enjoying The Left Hand of God more and more, in spite of the frequent use of cliches and awkward POV switches.  But my new complaint is that all the female characters are kind of awful.  There have been four speaking women so far, one of whom is sexy and stupid, one gorgeous and kind of blank, one evil and dumb, and one just kind of a harridan.  None of them are major characters.  I'm not usually someone bothered much by things like that, but as the women pile up and get more and more annoying, I get more and more depressed.

Okay, I'm done complaining.  Thanks for listening.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Depends On Your Point Of View

The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman.  I found the cover and the premise intriguing; didn't get around to it the first time I checked it out, but now I've gotten into it.  And by (the titular) God, the premise and the characters are as exciting as I want them to be. 

Hoffman hits most of my sweet spots--we've got a religious sect, a bunch of kids in a boarding school-like situation.  Now, both of these are horrifying--usually I like the more positive explorations of this stuff.  It's easy to take the constrictions of a religious lifestyle and say, "Look, oppressive!"  I generally prefer the stories about the complexities, or at least the draw.  But you know, a well-realized fictitious religion brings a lot of great stuff to a story.

Then you've got Cale, the main character.  Young teenager who is smarter, more talented, more dangerous than any of the adults around him.  It could be seen as an easy sell, but full credit here--Cale kind of might be a sociopath--but maybe not--but he's really dangerous.  This is no Ender Wiggin, with the mind and soul of a good kid and the honed instincts of a killer.  This is a kid who doesn't know who he is, but he makes other people nervous, and maybe himself, too.

So this is what I've liked about the book.  I want to know what happens--I want to know if the boys bring down their enemies, or if they even get away.  What happens in their lives?  I'm sold.

But.  But...well, this.  Patricia Wrede (The Raven Ring, Mairelon the Magician, 100 other YA books you should read) talks about the tight third person, vs. third person omniscient.  She explains very clearly the problem with an omniscient narrator who jumps casually from mind to mind, sometimes our hero, sometimes a bystander, sometimes a whole group of people.  Left Hand adds a new level, with a narrator who occasionally says something about what the characters will learn in the future, or what's going on right now that they don't know.  It's practically out of an old penny dreadful: "Little did they know that their archenemies were hatching a diabolical plot as they spoke!" 

There are also random moments when the narrator appears to be someone specific in the world of the story.  The first line of the book is, "Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary."  Now, that's the voice of someone who's been there, right?  But that is not the voice of the narrator who later tells you what two different people are thinking and feeling as they have a conversation. 

So it's a bit of a muddle there.  There are other things, anachronism type things about how people who have spent their entire lives in a very specific, rigid, horrifying condition have knowledge of very specific things (they pine for things they should never have heard of), and modern, casual grammar snuggled up against High Fantasy Talk. 

None of these is ridiculously off-putting, but they conspire to tug me out of the narrative more often than is good for the book.  I think I'm at a turning point--if Cale gets more and more likeable, I'll end up liking the book.  If he gets darker and darker, I might not care as much what happens to him.  I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens. 

And there's a sequel!  The Last Four Things, and it's already out.  We'll see if I sell myself on reading it.  It's hard enough not to spoil the book I'm reading with the blurb from the next one!  I can't be trusted.

I'd Rather Be Reading

There's so much good stuff coming at me, and I'm in the middle of so many good books, I've actually had a hard time concentrating at work this week.  Because The Land of Painted Caves is waiting for me at the library (and look out for my opinions on that as I'm trying to pound through it in the short window of time I'll have), plus I'm determined to finish Switch before I see Elizabeth tomorrow, since I'd like to return it promptly (first time ever on that score). 

But I'm also trying to finish The Left Hand of God, which I've had out a few times now and never gotten around to.  And I'm going to need to talk through this one, because I so very want to love this book, and I'm having a hard time with it.

Unfortunately, with that teaser, you'll have to wait.  I'm at work now, and lunch is drawing to a close.  More soon!