Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pat Murphy, Max Merriwell, Mary Maxwell, and Weldon Merrimax

I just finished Pat Murphy's/Mary Maxwell's/Max Merriwell's fabulous trilogy, read out of order. In order, they are There and Back Again, Wild Angel, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. I read There and Back Again first, then Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, and then Wild Angel. Which I think was just fine. I loved them all, but I think Wild Angel might be the only novel not by Horatio Alger that I've read that's set in the California gold rush during the 1850's. It's definitely the only novel I've read that's set in the California gold rush during the 1850's featuring a heroine raised by wolves. Excellent.

There and Back Again is an old school sci-fi novel with rockets and aliens, Wild Angel is as described above, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell takes place on a cruise ship, yet they are most certainly a trilogy. Fun reading. But thoughtful too. Highly recommended.

And so so different from the first novel I read by Pat Murphy! Wow.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

There and Back Again

So I read The Wild Girls, right? And loved it. Loved it so much that I put all of Pat Murphy's other books on hold at the library. But it looks like The Wild Girls may be Pat Murphy's only book that is realistic fiction. I just finished There and Back Again, which I loved, but which falls into that sub-genre of science fiction that's all rocket ships and worm holes (and it was written in 1999, which I think of as well after the rocket ships and worm holes sub-genre peaked). I am not terribly well-versed in this sub-genre, but There and Back Again was so captivating.

But she has an Afterword--or her pseudonym, Max Merriwell, has an Afterword--in which s/he explains and/or points out that her/his novel is modeled after The Hobbit and is a hero's journey.

Which totally makes sense.

So this book that I just finished is an old-school sci-fi novel, a hero's journey modeled after The Hobbit, captivating and enthralling and really fun, by the author of The Wild Girls! I'm excited to read Pat Murphy's other books. Which is good, since all the holds got filled at once so they're all waiting for me at home.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Messed Up

I just read another awesome book. Totally teacher-written, so much from a teacher POV, although ostensibly it's first person from R.D.'s POV. Somehow, I think, it manages to be convincingly both, and I think it would ring true to an R.D. reading it. But I'm a teacher, not an R.D., so what do I know. Anyway, he rang really true to me. I've known too many kids like him.

Messed Up by Janet Nichols Lynch is a novel about R.D., smart and interesting, but his mom had him at 14 and is now in jail, his dad was never around, and he was living with his grandmother and Earl, her beau, until she found a new man, Hairy, and left town with him, leaving R.D. with Earl. Which is okay, until Earl dies. R.D. doesn't tell anyone at first; he can already sort of drive (having already failed eighth grade, being almost sixteen, and helping Earl with the mechanic's business he runs out of the garage), he can already forge Earl's signature, and he learns to cook (one of the most moving and special parts of this novel, I think).

The teacher-ness doesn't really show up till the end, when R.D. and his friend Jeanette go into the shop room and wonder why these classes aren't being offered anymore. I was not the only one outraged and frustrated when the shop teacher at the middle school I worked at retired and was not replaced--R.D. speaks the truth for a lot of kids at a lot of schools when he tells Jeanette, "Most of the kids I know who took shop are in double math now. It's sort of funny because about the only time I ever used math was in shop. You gotta figure real careful or everything turns out messed up. It's the only class I ever got an A in." Thank god for the cooking and childcare programs at the high school I teach at--the classes are always full, and a lot of kids who might not end up going to college (which is FINE!) are loving them, feeling proud of their achievements, and learning real-life skills that will help them find jobs!

This book is so spot-on at a lot of moments. It was fun to read like that. For example, R.D. is at a school dance when "The music stops and I hear a girl scream, 'Let go of me.' It's that thing where you're yelling to be heard over the loud music and suddenly the music stops and it's you just yelling." Who hasn't been in that situation?

And R.D.'s class reads "The Gift of the Magi" right before Christmas, and when he "feel[s] the tears coming, I pretend to cough and sneeze so I can walk up to the front of the classroom and get a Kleenex." He raises his hand to tell the teacher "they really need to get their money back on those hair thingies to get the watch back cuz sometimes people buy things from pawn shops and they'll never get the watch back if they don't jump on it, and anyways, the dumb lady's dumb hair will grow back for free so what's she whining about?" His teacher says he's missing the point; He observes, correctly, "I'm not though, or I wouldn't need a Kleenex."

It works out okay for R.D. in the end, although his earnest first-year teacher who got the class with all the "bad" kids who've been held back quits half-way through her first year since she knows she's not going to get rehired next year--R.D. comes in over Christmas break when she's packing her stuff and she tells him, "'I uh... well, I haven't been reelected for next year.'" He asks what that means, and she says, "'It means fired. They don't want to call it that, but that's what it is.'" Yeah. No Child Left Behind. Except for the kids we don't give a shit about.

But R.D. gets emancipated, goes to an alternative high school, and gets a job prepping in a fancy restaurant. R.D. is one of the bad-ass smart kids dealt a bad hand who gets just enough breaks that he makes it out. Yay for happy endings.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Wild Girls

I just read an awesome book. It would've probably been my favorite book if I'd read it when I was 12, and it might just be my new favorite book right now. I read it in bed all morning, and I laughed and cried and laughed and cried, often but not always at the same time.

About becoming a writer and being 12 and your parents not getting along...

Joan is 12 in 1972 when her dad gets a new job in San Francisco so her family (she, her mom and dad, and her older brother Mark) moves from Connecticut to Danville, "a little suburban town about a half hour's drive from San Francisco."

When she breaks a glass helping her mom unpack, her mom tells her to go explore, so she does, and she meets "the Queen of All the Foxes," a.k.a. Fox, a.k.a. Sarah, who right away takes her hunting for newts.

She spends all summer with Fox, and when school starts and she sees Fox (Sarah at school), "I almost didn't recognize her."

They are sort of friends at school, good friends outside of school, and they write a prize-winning story and take a creative writing class at Berkeley the next summer, taught by Verla Volante, who in their first class asks "a lot of really strange questions. Not like most teachers, who ask a lot of questions that they already know the answers to. Verla asked weird questions, and she said stuff like: You're the only one who knows the answer to this question. Questions like these don't have right or wrong answers. If you don't know the answer, make up the answer. Later on you can figure out if it's true."

Joan (later known, at least in the woods with Fox, as Newt) loves Verla's class of course, and likes the other "loose nuts" in the class. She learns to write stories that help her make sense of her world, and quote Verla's aphorisms liberally including "Anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And later on you can use it in some story."

This book is much more complex and much better than I'm making it sound. You should just read it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Walter Dean Myers: The Dream Bearer

But then I read a YA book that I loved (see review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You here): The Dream Bearer, by Walter Dean Myers, which I was delighted to see he dedicated to Miriam! Yay! (Miriam is his agent, who I used to work for.)

I forget how well Myers does 12-year-olds. The last book I read and loved by him, this year's National Book Award nominee Lockdown, is among my favorites of his, up there with Autobiography of My Dead Brother and, always, Monster. But The Dream Bearer's main character, David, still has his big brother at home, which makes David a younger twelve than he might be otherwise.

Anyway, I loved this book. I read it till I finished it, in spite of much else to do--which isn't always an indicator of a great novel, but in this case I think it is. It's so much about family and, of course, about dreams.

Mr. Moses, the dream bearer of the title, tells David a lot of wise things. One of them is, "David, we build our dreams deep down in our souls. We use everything we ever knew and everything that's ever touched us. You've got a strong heart and a strong mind. If this old world can be changed, it'll be because you've nudged it toward the dreams you build. I got faith in you, David. I got a real true faith in you."

I don't know if it's a book that will appeal to 12-year-olds. But I'm going to be recommending it to every adult I know, especially those of us who work with children.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

I just finished reading Peter Cameron's novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. One of the blurbs on the back, James Cameron's (listed as author of The Misfits but better known and beloved for Bunnicula), compared it to Catcher in the Rye, and yeah it's sort of a 2004 update. Rich New Yorker kid (James went to Sty instead of a private school, but same difference really) with divorced parents, a wealthy lawyer father and a thrice-married mom who owns a Chelsea gallery.

It's no more YA fiction than Catcher in the Rye is, but since it was published in 2007, then it's YA. Similarly, had I read it when I first read Catcher in the Rye, I probably would have loved it, but at 34, I found the hero to be spoiled and annoying, and sorry I'm just not that interested in reading about rich white teenagers dealing with their dislike of their peers and questioning whether they're interested in starting their freshman year of college in the fall (Brown, of course!).

But I did finish it. Which says something. It was a fun read. & I was thinking how the passages I marked at 34 so aren't the passages I would've marked at 18:

"I walked deeper into the woods, down a slope, and into a sort of culvert, through which trickled a narrow stream. The stream smelled a little funky and I was glad it was dark, so I couldn't see how polluted it was. ...I squatted down and covered my face, pushing the heels of my hands into the sockets of my eyes. They fit perfectly, like two halves of a whole, and my hands were exactly the right size to cradle my skull. It seemed like another example of how well human beings are designed, that you were shaped to comfort yourself."

"I always feel humbled by people who speak more than one language. I envy them. It seems with two (or more) vocabularies, you could not only say so much more and speak to so many more people, but also think more. I often feel I want to think something but I can't find the language that coincides with the thought, so it remains felt, not thought. Sometimes I feel like I'm thinking in Swedish without knowing Swedish." (This does not feel like the thinking of any 18-year-old to me.)

James' awesome grandma: "Having bad experiences sometimes helps; it makes it clearer what it is you should be doing. I know that sounds very Pollyannaish but it's true. People who have had only good experiences aren't very interesting. They may be content, and happy after a fashion, but they aren't very deep. It may seem a misfortune now, and it makes things difficult, but well--it's easy to feel all the happy, simple stuff. Not that happiness is necessarily simple. But I don't think you're going to have a life like that, and I think you'll be the better for it. The difficult thing is not to be overwhelmed by the bad patches. You mustn't let them defeat you. You must see them as a gift--a cruel gift, but a gift nonetheless."

When Nanette (the grandma) eventually dies and leaves everything in the house to him, as she told him she would, he uses "some of the money my grandmother left me" to put it all in "a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island City" against his parents' advice--they wanted him to have it all "liquidated" but he says storing it "seems reasonable to me. I'm only eighteen. How do I know what I will want in my life? How do I know what things I will need?"

I just realized that it was Peter Cameron I saw "in conversation" with Sherman Alexie at the Strand after both their YA novels came out--Cameron's, reviewed above, which he never intended to be YA but was marketed as such, and Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which Alexie very deliberately wrote as YA. Their take on YA was so different: Cameron thought his novel being marketed as YA really reduced it as literature (he was so infuriating and ill-informed!) and Alexie was pleased to be directly writing for a demographic that was already reading and loving his stuff.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Yay! West Indian Food in Portland!

This cart doesn't have roti--the guy working said he's been bugging his mom to make some, though, and I said, "Tell him some white girl came and asked for it"--but the jerk chicken and chickpeas over rice--for $5!--made me really happy. It's called Caribbean Kookpot, it's open Wednesday through Saturday afternoon till 7:30, and it's on Mississippi just above Fremont.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I just finished Extras, the fourth and final book in the Uglies series, and I'm now even reading Bogus to Bubbly, "An Insider's Guide to the World of the Uglies," which I got out of the public library by mistake (I thought it was one of Scott Westerfeld's other novels).

This series plus the insider's guide made me so happy.

Hah! I'm loving all the fake history in Bogus to Bubbly. For example, from "another document uncovered by the Awesome Librarians clique": "In cities like Diego, the pretties with the greatest resistance to social programming and brain surge [the operation to make us all dumber, fun-loving-er, and less likely to challenge our current society] often became teachers and librarians." God I wish that's how it was. Except that is sort of how it is. But I wish it was more like that.

As I posted on Facebook this morning, "I just finished the last book in the Uglies series, Extras--when do you ever finish a series so happy about the final book? It ends PERFECTLY." How brilliant, to have the final book show us how Tally's rebellion played out around the world--the final book takes place about three years after the third one, and the main character is a post-ugly (what else should I call her, really? A fifteen-year-old? She does observe, very early on, that "It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen." Some things just won't ever change.) in JAPAN! Aya lives in a city ruled by a Reputation Economy.

I also love the quotations Scott Westerfeld opens each section of each book with. He talks a lot about beauty, understandably, and the epigraph for part 2 of the first book, Uglies, is from Francis Bacon: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." He discusses this further in Bogus to Bubbly when he goes into all the research he did on neoteny, the halo effect, and the other hypotheses he used in researching and creating the Uglies series.

Also why I love Bogus to Bubbly: Westerfeld can explain each of the devices in his series by saying things like, "...bungee jackets allow my heroes to jump off tall things and not die, which is very useful for an author." He also observes that "It's cool how inventions that start out just for fun often wind up as part of the plot." CREATIVE WRITING TEACHERS! TAKE NOTE!