3.26.2012

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen


Chomp

Somehow I believed I liked Carl Hiaasen's work before I'd even read a word of his writing.  Why?  Because of the covers.



Those are seriously cute.  Especially Hoot, which sort of started the Hiaasen as YA writer thing.  His latest, Chomp, launches tomorrow, and it follows in the visual footsteps of its cousins:


I love the continuity here.  These are NOT a series, but they would make a nice set on the shelf, and the good news is they're not just good cover design.  Or at least Chomp isn't.  I haven't read the others, but Hoot was a Newbery Honor book, so it is on my list to get to at some point in the future.

Chomp is about a boy (unfortunately named Wahoo) and his dad. The dad is a professional animal wrangler who often provides and handles snakes or gators or other "wild" animals used in television programs or events.  Unfortunately, the dad has a major concussion (frozen iguana falls out of tree) that has left him seeing double and unable to work.  Money gets tight, mom goes to China to teach English, and Wahoo is left to hold the house together.  Despite his dad's injury, he urges his dad to sign a contract with a well-known reality program called Expedition: Survival that wants to shoot in the nearby Everglades.  Before they leave, they take on a girl named Tuna who has run away from her abusive dad.  There are more than a few crazy happenings (some might say ridiculous) to follow, but in the end, Hiaasen provides a mostly enjoyable, often funny, and sometimes thought-provoking read for young people.

At one point in the book, we are told that "Real reality had thwarted TV reality" (227).  It is the skewering of fake survival reality shows that makes this book a worthy read.  Though most adults may take for granted the staged nature of all reality programs, many kids have not yet reached the point of critical thinking to question what they are consuming.  This book takes them "behind the scenes" and reveals the star, Derek Badger, to be a fraud.  Though Badger's character is much, much too one-dimensional, the lesson is a good one for young readers.  In fact, that last sentence could be applied to the whole book: too one-dimensional to be considered an instant classic or anything much beyond "fluff" but an entertaining story with some good points.  I do hate when books for kids are condescending, but there are definitely times when simple is better.  In this case, it works for the most part.

Where it doesn't work for me is the problem of Tuna and her father.  He is the stereotypical violent drunk, who gave her the black eye that caused Wahoo and his dad to take her with them to the Everglades.  I know there are kids who deal with violent fathers who drink, but I did not buy Hiaasen's description of this particular violent drunk.  It was somehow too Disneyfied.  And when drunk dad with a fist turns in to drunk dad with a gun, things get a bit too ridiculous.  The plot just jumps the tracks a bit much for me in the second half or so.

So, not a great book but a good one.  With unique voices, characters, and situations, I would not mind my kids discovering this one at the library, but I won't make a point to get it for the permanent collection.

**I read this ARC through NetGalley - thanks, Lu! - which made the layout funky.  I did not prefer it, but I didn't hate it either, so I'll probably keep giving it a chance every now and then.**

3.21.2012

How the Mighty Have Fallen

Did you know that the famous phrase "Lo, how the mighty have fallen" is no phrase at all?  Apparently, we all think it is, but it is not.  I was going to use it for the title of this post, but being a complete stickler for doing things right, I googled it to be sure.  I found a load of other blog posts with the same title and a herd of people asking where it comes from and then, the answer: 2 Samuel 1:27.  But the verse reads "How the might have fallen!  The weapons of war have perished."  Ain't no 'lo' about it.

Anyhow, this afternoon. There was much couch sitting.  And leg stretching.  And student paper disregarding.  And book finishing.

But the "Mighty" who have fallen are not related to any of that.  Instead, they are the product of a serious look at the TBRs last week.  I had to do something.  They were all just sitting there.  Looking at me.  And you know, I suddenly realized: I don't actually want to read most of these.  At all.  So, The WMaIDWtPATB Challenge, it got serious fast.  It was like I was the GameMaker, and they were the Tributes, and I thought it would be wildly entertaining if a gigantic swarm of rabid bumblebunnies came out of their holes in the ground and stung half of them.  To death.  And then ate carrots.

Here's what did not get a ticket to Vegas:

Raising Self-Reliant Children in an Self-Indulgent World
For Common Things
Raising Cain
The Wonder of Boys
Judgment & Grace in Dixie
Within Our Reach
The 2 Shock of Recognition Books
Serpent in Eden
Reading Writing

Also going down last week was the YA book Aldabra by Silvana Gandolfi.  This book was Gandolfi's first book translated to English although she has written several in her native Italy.  And thought I love Europe and the sometimes unusual (to me) way Europeans look at the world, this book and I did not get along.  It wasn't offensive or even badly written, but I could not get behind the notion of this girl's grandmother transforming herself into a giant tortoise.  Or I could believe it, but I didn't care?  Something.  I finished it, but it won't make the shelves.

I took Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook to work, so I can pick away at it in spare moments.  And I finally finished the collection of Hemingway short stories that I started in July and that have been serving as bathroom reading ever since, so the 50 Essays collection has moved into the bathroom.

That's some serious progress, people.  12 down.  Just 90 more to go.

It's Because I Don't Like You

No.  Of course it's not that. 

I'm on my annual at-home, at-work retreat, which usually results in at least one book read in one sitting, a fair amount of blogging, and minimal rushing around.  This year, not so much.

The family is away having a lovely Spring Break, and I am hoping today will let me do a little more of the aforementioned good stuff and less of the rushing around stuff.  I had gotten so behind on work before my Spring Break that I've spent the last week and a half catching up.  Here's to getting ahead!

A few major points have been scored in the last wee bit, however:

1.  The WMaIDWtPATB Challenge is moving right along - post forthcoming. 
2.  Thanks to Lu at Regular Rumination, I have discovered NetGalley and am about to finish my first NetGalley ARC of a great YA book: Chomp by Carl Hiaasen - post forthcoming.
3.  Ann Pancake, author of Strange as This Weather Has Been, was here for a few days, speaking to my classes, giving a reading, and generally being a wonderful person.  Though I took no photos (whaaaat?), recorded no video, and basically did not act like a blogger at all, I deeply enjoyed visiting with her and sharing her work with this campus. 

So.  We'll talk later, m-kay?  I'll even try to get my thinking cap on and make it smart and stuff.  Or I'll eat oreos and stretch out on the couch and fantasize about all the papers being graded.  Aaaaaaah.

3.13.2012

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival


I am thrilled to be kicking off the TLC Book Tour for Christopher Benfey's Red Brick, White Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival.  This book launches on Thursday, and I was fortunate to get a copy from the publisher for an early look into it.  I chose to read this one despite not being sure what it was about.  I knew only that it was about art, Appalachia, and family history - all of which interest me.

Here's the blurb:
Christopher Benfey traces his family back through the generations and unearths an ancestry - and an aesthetic - that is quintessentially American.  His mother descends from colonial explorers and Quaker craftsmen.  Benfey's father - along with his aunt and uncle, the famed Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers - escaped from Nazi Europe by fleeing to the American South.  Struggling to find themselves in this new world, Benfey's family found strength and salvation in the rich craft tradition grounded in America's natural landscape.  A vivid, intricate web of family, art, and history, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay tells the story of America's artistic birth.
Since I prefer paperbacks and often buy my books used, the physical aspects of this book first drew me in.  It is a tall and narrow hardback, an unusual size, and the pages have a good weight and feeling (and smell!).  Ah, new books - intoxicating.

As indicated by the title, the book is divided into three parts.  The heaviest focus on Benfey's grandfather's brick work is in part 1, the focus of part 2 is mostly the Black Mountain College where Josef and Anni Albers established themselves, and part 3 spends most of its energy on the early fascination with the white clay of Appalachia.  However, the delineations are not so tidy, and there are parts of each history intermingled in all the other sections.  There is a lot of ground covered here, and if you are interested in these topics, you could gain significant information on the history of ceramics and pottery as well as other areas of history.

Unfortunately, the book lacks narrative cohesion.  Undoubtedly, these disparate threads can be woven together in Benfey's mind to make a beautiful finished product; however, to the reader, the result is less than satisfying.  I still don't fully understand what the trip to his father's native Germany had to do with any of the other components.  I don't know why we had to get a long section on the linguistics of family names and their connections to Greek mythology.  I don't understand why every important character discussed was a Quaker (like Benfey) but the book was not focused on their Quaker-ness at all.  It was just mentioned and ignored.  These and other narrative threads are introduced and then left hanging, often with little or no attempt to weave them in.

This lack of cohesion is seen in the book's arrangement.  Each large section is divided into three main chapters, each of which is further subdivided into tiny chapters, most only a page long.  The progression from one "chapter" to the next is often disjointed, requiring only a fleeting connection.  And because the sections are not fully focused on their themes, the sections are somehow disconnected and blurred at the same time.  I do so hate to have had a negative experience with this one, but I ultimately had to conclude that this book was the work of an academic who had done significant personal and scholarly research, who had secured all the right information to start connecting the dots, but never managed to do so.  Instead of an organized, developed, and controlled narrative, we have what feels like a large sheaf of the researcher's notes.  With something as ambitious as this project undoubtedly was, the author needed to guide the reader through the various elements with a steady hand, always aware of the destination, always explaining the connections along the way.  Instead, Benfey embraces the symbol of the "meander" or labyrinth, found often in art, and it becomes a reasonable representation of the work Benfey has done.

He writes in the epilogue:
I can see, now, that some such divination has been my purpose in this book all along.  My pen has been my metal detector, and I have been digging, as patiently as I can, for evidence of my family's passages, in art and in love, as they pursued their own lives across many generations, living and surviving.  A snuffbox, a stamp album, a rust-colored pitcher, a handful of white clay -- these things carry their stories with them. (269)
If such meandering appeals to you, or if you have an interest in pottery, you might be interested in this book.  As the tour continues, I will be interested to find what others have to say about it, especially those bloggers that are also potters.  And if you review this book, let me know.  I'll be glad to post a link to your thoughts here.


3.08.2012

Gerald Barrax - From a Person Sitting in Darkness

**I missed the post at the end of February due to technical difficulties, so I decided I'd just go ahead and share some poetry love here in the beginning of March.  Maybe I'll make it on time for the actual day at the end of March.**

Last spring, as part of my volunteer stint with the Conference on Southern Literature, I got to play chauffeur to a couple of really great writers: Gerald Barrax and George Singleton.  Naturally, I picked up some of their work, and both books have sat on the TBR shelves since then.

Barrax is a soft-spoken and thoughtful man.  His poetry is equally thoughtful although not always soft-spoken.  My job last spring was to take him to speak to a class of high school students, and his insights into poetry were excellent.  He read from his work one of the poems in this collection, and though it is not my favorite, I can see why he might have chosen it.  It is called "Special Bus," and it reflects upon his experience idling at a red light next to a bus of special needs children.  Clearly, the poem is his way of working through the conflicting feelings many of us experience when faced with this kind of challenge.  In the poem, he considers - and even names - his own children, born without disability, and he wonders "why I've been five times / blessed or missed by Chance  / and others not" (6-8).  In the end, though, the face of one of the children rebukes him for thanking God for his children's lack of disability because that thankfulness implies that those "others" would somehow do the opposite, cursing God for their challenges, for the children themselves.  The poem makes a strong point, and I'm glad he shared it with the class.  Again, I feel this poem is not his strongest, but he chose it for its accessibility and because the moment was clearly important to him.

As for what might be his strongest in the collection, I have several I did like very much.  Barrax, a musician, writes of opera, instrument, and song often, and as a musician myself, there are many that resonate with me.  He also writes often of love - emotional and physical, especially in the earlier poems - and it is these two together that make up "If She Sang" (120):

I would feel better if it were song I heard:
in the kitchen, amid the harvest of utensil noise
she sows around her like dragon's teeth;
or in the corner of our room
where she stitches quietly to herself, quietly
until she bursts into speech,
so far from both of us
that a third person is its only possible medium.

"What did you say?"
I sometimes challenge and retreat,
taking the risk of intrusion
because no alarm that brings someone who loves us
is false.

Yet I would feel better
if she sang.
I understand song and could enter
uninvited into its world;
but in her moments of self
and counterself is a dimension with room
for the two only, where even love
is suffered with the patience reserved for fools.

And one more, this time, about silence:

Your Eyes Have Their Silence (20)

Your eyes have their silence in giving words
back more beautifully than trees can rain
and give back in swaying the rain
that makes silence mutable and startles the nesting birds.

And so it rains.  And I speak or not
as your eyes go from silence suddenly
at love to wonder (as those quiet birds suddenly
at rain) letting, finally, myself be taught

silence before your eyes conceding everything
spoken as experience, as love, as reason
enough not to speak of them, and my reason
crawls into the silence of your eyes.  Spring

always promises something, sometimes only more
beauty: and so it rains.  And I take
whatever promise there is in silence as you take
words as rain and give them back in silence before

there are ways to say that more beauty is nothing
for you before my hands can memorize
the beauty of your slender movements and nothing
is beautiful as words nesting in your eyes.

I chose these two about the relationship between a man and a woman, but there are many more in this fine collection, many that deal with social issues, especially regarding the African-American experience.  There are poems about family, about yardwork, about the pleasures of hanging clothes on the line.  There is a life's work in this collection, and I am glad to have read this life and met the man who has lived and will go on living this life.