Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park

This is a devastating and touching portrait of what happens to people and society in war-torn, impoverished nations. As bleak as it often is, this is not a hopeless caricature of human civilization at its worst. In fact, it is hopeful and it shows how people often persevere when things get tough and this perseverance can help elevate a person's situation, even if it does take some time. Linda Sue Park's unsentimental, simple prose allows the story to flow smoothly and easily and adds to the power of the tragic and uplifting moments. Where this story excels is not in character, but in plot and its portrayal of life in a third world nation. This is a story everyone should read.

The story opens with Nya's story in Southern Sudan, 2008. She has to walk eight hours everyday to get water for her family. Nya's story is briefly told, just enough to give us an idea of survival in modern day rural Sudan, revolving around that ever-important source of life: water. The book mainly focuses on Salva, a boy, in Southern Sudan of 1985. His story opens with civil war forcing him to flee without his family, unsure if his family is even alive. He finds himself alone, unwanted, because adults fear he will just drag them down and use too much of their scarce resources. He finds help and kindness from very few adults, and as a young boy he little understands what is going on, except that his life is at stake.

These alternating story lines eventually connect, of course, but during much of the story they seem connected only by geographic place. Students of mine who have read, or attempted to read, have complained about confusion from these alternating perspectives. In that way, it teaches students the importance of prediction, as any good reader will trust that there is a purpose in telling these two stories, separated so far as they are by time - 33 years. But 33 years isn't all that far apart, in reality. We see that the conditions for Nya have not improved much, if at all, from where Salva comes, and where some things are better for Nya (no war), others are worse (harder to get water, no school). And the connection made between both stories teaches a powerful lesson about how history impacts us today. That is one of Park's many gifts from this book, to so powerfully, so simply, and so clearly show this connection between the past and now. A terrific read.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: The Adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

It's not hard to see why, twenty years later, Dav Pilkey's The Adventures of Captain Underpants is still seeing reprints and now has a movie (which is largely what spurred me to read this). The adult in me sees the cover and title with contempt. This story can't be anything but stupid, I think. But the adolescent inside me snickers at the superhero dressed in whitey-tighties and a red cape. So while the kids all open the book with glee, the adult scoffs. What the adult may be surprised to find is that this is not stupid, not at all. It's actually pretty clever. Yes, it's definitely something better enjoyed as a pre-teen or teenager, but adults can breathe easy knowing that their young boys and girls are not reading trash, but something with real humor and even heart.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants is a graphic novel that combines prose and dialogue with colorful pictures. These pictures do not just serve to enhance the story, but also help tell it. In the opening chapter, for example, the prose explains that the two main characters, Harold and George, are troublemakers, while the pictures show how they cause trouble when they change a flower shop sign from "Pick your own roses!" to "Pick our noses!"

But Harold and George don't just pull pranks, they also create a comic book series called "The Adventures of Captain Underpants" to distribute to classmates. This series features the titular superhero taking care of elementary school related problems, sometimes with monsters involved. But the book is not about their comic book. It's about how they transform their mean principal into Captain Underpants by using hypnosis. But they underestimate how Mr. Krupp, said principal, will take on this role, which is surprisingly well, running around in his underwear and trying to stop, among other things, bank robbers.

Pilkey's prose is simple and to the point. There's a lightness to his writing that gives the sense he is not trying too hard for laughs, nor that he's trying to dumb things down for the age level the story's aimed at. The drawings are also amusing, and at one point they even become interactive, as Pilkey provides instructions for his "Flip-o-Rama" during an action scene, providing a mini-cartoon activity that's as amusing to watch as it is fun to do. The story is also, apparently, semi-autobiographical. Apparently Pilkey got the idea back in elementary school, and it's sad to learn that his teacher reprimanded him for his work rather than praise him. Lucky for Pilkey it all worked out. Not all class clowns get to turn their mischief into success later in life. And Pilkey proves that you can't write something off just because it appears immature and adolescent.

Review: Dragonwatch, by Brandon Mull

With Dragonwatch, Brandon Mull takes a rather safe, conservative approach to fantasy. There's never really a sense of danger or terror, not much of a sense of adventure. That's because in Mull's fantasy world characters largely remain within magical safe havens that protect them from demons and dragons and ogres. Perhaps this is nothing new for readers of Mull's Fablehaven series, which I have not read, and if you haven't read it, there are plenty of spoilers in Dragonwatch. What you will find in Dragonwatch is a mildly amusing fantasy adventure.

Seth and Kendra are hot off their Fablehaven adventures when we first see them. Seth is finishing a quest for some witches, testing his new abilities as a shadow charmer (something that doesn't see much use in this book, actually). Kendra is back home, relaxing and exercising. She is now Fairy Kind, an ability that gets some use. Now that the demons have been defeated, things feel safe, but both Seth and Kendra receive some warnings about the dragons, who are enemies of the demons. With the demons defeated, the dragons stand ready to fill the vacuum left behind. As it turns out, with their newfound abilities, Seth and Kendra will have a major role to play in protecting the world against the dragons.

As exciting as that sounds, you won't find a whole lot of excitement in Book One until the end, and even there it's sort of rushed through and drained of suspense. Some of the plotting is amusing and holds promise, but the characters are all paper-thin dull. Seth and Kendra serve as the two perspective characters. The narrator alternates between them at will and sometimes even seems to forget about them. Both have personalities that could be explained in one word. Seth is reckless and Kendra is cautious. Not a whole lot of complexity, and it's made easier by having the characters fall into society's expectations of gender roles. And like other YA heroines, Kendra swoons at the sight of cute boys, including the unicorn Bracken and then later another boy, which bothers her because she thinks she loves Bracken. Seth has no romantic interest, but he's at the age where boys apparently think girls are gross. Parents can rest assured that Mull plays it safe with the young girl and boy, but this means they do lack the sort of depth that might make them more intriguing characters.

Plenty of fantasy appears to revel in combining the real world with the fantasy world, from Neil Gaiman's work to Harry Potter to The Spiderwick Chronicles. This is probably most comparable to Spiderwick, but in that series the characters feel real and so does the danger. Where Spiderwick could scare with small goblins and other beasties, Mull's massive dragons are tame by comparison. Never once did Mull have me believe any of these characters were ever in harm's way, even when they did inevitably venture out from their safe havens. Fans of Mull and YA fantasy will probably find enjoyment here, and I didn't find the book without amusement. It's a fast-paced, unchallenging work that will likely have readers curious to know what will happen next.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Last Universe, by William Sleator

What begins as a rather mundane tale about a girl whose older brother has been crippled by multiple sclerosis transforms into something pretty amazing by the end. William Sleator is an author I've discovered only recently, and I'm glad I did. His stories tend to involve regular young teenagers who are cast into extraordinary circumstances, generally involving some bizarre science phenomenon. Boltzmon! has its hero meet an apparently real being that is able to teleport him between alternate worlds, and The Boxes introduces a young boy to clockwork creatures that are able to play with time. And now The Last Universe is about a pair of teenagers who discover the awesome, yet unpredictable, power of quantum mechanics. Yes, the human story, and even the story of the crippling disease, is rather weak. But when Sleator introduces the science elements, things begin to grow interesting, and I even learned a thing or two about quantum mechanics.

For Susan, it is sad that her brother is slowly dying from a disease that physically weakens him, but it's also a drag. She's stuck at home, being kicked off her instant message chats with friends in order to take her brother, Gary, for walks in his wheelchair. He likes to go for walks around the expansive garden that comprises the backyard, though he isn't necessarily piqued by the idea that he can't actually walk himself. In the backyard they often run into the gardener from Cambodia, Luke, and his cat, oddly-named Sro-dee, though it makes sense later on (and for those who know a little about quantum mechanics). Lately, odd things have been happening in the garden. The pond where Susan and Gary's Aunt Caroline drowned has been growing lotus flowers, which Luke claims can't bloom in that sort of climate. Gary seems different too, sometimes more lively, sometimes sulky. He's interested in finding the maze that Susan can see from the kitchen window, but can't ever seem to find it in person, for some reason.

This story is about discovery. About discovering a scientific concept, a new part of the world, and trying to use it to improve oneself. Gary seeks a way to reverse his disease and is confident the maze holds the key. But discovery does not always go the way humans hope. This story shows what happens when people try to use the power of an unpredictable science for their own betterment. This isn't necessarily a story of hope or a story of warning, but a story about the unpredictability of life. No matter how strong-willed one is, and Gary and Susan are certainly strong-willed, the world doesn't bend to that will. I don't want to give away what happens, but I will end by saying that this is a story whose science elements makes it a much better story than it initially seems.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

I laughed quite a bit reading this book. Paul Beatty's imaginative inventions are clever and often hilarious, things that seem pulled out of left field, but that are put together much more carefully than they initially appear. And while I can't say I've read many books that caused me to laugh out loud more often than this one, something about it, somehow, still ended up feeling unsatisfying. This feels like a lengthy stand-up routine with loose strands of plot, and I guess when something is built up as a "Swiftian satire" and "a powerful novel of vital import," there's bound to be disappointment.

Beatty's manic energy is overwhelming at first, especially when coupled with his massively long sentence structure. A paragraph later you're left breathless, both because of the laughter and because you're still trying to digest what you just read. The style almost forces the reader to forge ahead recklessly along with him, even though there are speed bumps telling you to slow down, such as the many references scattered throughout his work, many of which you might not know (I sure didn't). This mania does slow down eventually, and this is where the novel is at its best. The description of the main character's father, a psychologist whose social experiments on his son are simultaneously hilarious and sad. The satire comes from the fact that some of the novel's characters want to institute some form of racism, such as the black ex-Little Rascals actor who wants to be a slave or the bus that magically becomes safer when a sign indicating "Whites Only" is placed at the front.

But The Sellout isn't just social satire. There is plenty of humor of the self-deprecating variety, especially in regards to the main character's failed love life. These parts, along with the comical attempt to put a town, Dickens, back on the map (labeling one border with the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities), are feeble attempts at plot. Beatty doesn't seem very interested in plot, really. He allows his writing to travel where his mind takes it, offering plenty of social commentary, often in the form of a series of three lists. So many of the jokes begin to feel repetitive due to Beatty's insistence on using lists as his jokes, and usually one of the three items includes a basketball player's silly smugness over the ability to throw a ball into a hoop. Funny, yes. Hilariously funny, in fact. Glad I read it? Yes. Did it change my life or my perspective on race or the U.S.? Perhaps not. In a world of information overload, this is probably inevitable, so I guess it's okay to have a good laugh along the way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

An unflinching look at slavery and fugitive slaves, Colson Whitehead doesn't romanticize the era, neither slave nor slaveowner, doesn't elevate anyone to a status of hero or villain. The protagonist, Cora, is certainly the hero of the novel, but her acts of violence leave her feeling guilty and mark her as less than good. And the antagonist, the slave catcher Ridgeway, is just making a living carrying out the law of the land, as inhumane as that law was. While the underground railroad that Whitehead portrays is a fantasy, a literal railroad under the ground, the story of slavery is a real one, a harsh reality that reveals the depths of depravity that the people of the United States of America, the country of equality, had once reached. Whitehead shows how slavery not only brought down slaves and blacks as a whole, but was also harmful to whites. In her attempt to escape, Cora learns that it's not so easy to shake off the shackles of slavery and its deleterious effects remain for a long time.

Cora's grandmother was a first generation slave, having traveled from plantation to plantation until ending up in Georgia on the Randall farm. Cora's mother, Mabel, was famed as the only slave to escape the farm successfully, and Cora never forgave her for leaving her behind. But a more learned slave, Caesar, who winds up on the farm when his previous owner duplicitously split his family up, seeks her help to escape. Cora's reluctant. Successful escapes are rare. The whole country is turned against the slave and slave catchers can be ruthless in their hunt. And those who escape often meet horrendous ends. Of course she relents, or there would be no story. Her owner, James, passes away and is replaced by his brother, Terrence, a cruel, vicious man who marks her as his by slipping his hand down her shirt in front of the whole plantation.

While the history books portray slave escapes in simple terms, heroicizing the person who helps the slave fugitive, Whitehead shows the whole process to be messy and bumbling, full of errors. The person helping the slaves escape is not always kind-hearted, but hardened to the work, fearful of discovery, even cowardly. Even the escaping slave is not a model of moral virtue, no Uncle Tom. Cora, in her escape, kills a twelve-year-old boy. Yes, he was trying to capture her and she was fighting for her life, but at twelve, he was innocent, and the charge of murder is a dangerous label for the runaways. It's also a taint on her character. Slavery has shaped her into a vicious person, especially when she senses her life is in danger, and has hardened her from any softness except in rare instances.

I mention romanticism and heroics because often that's how stories of slavery are painted, whether historical or fictional. Many stories about slavery are often concerned with whether a master is kind or cruel, as if that trumps the fact that the slave is a piece of property and not a human being. The slave is portrayed as morally pure, religious, and loving. This strips them of their humanity - no person fits all of those qualities so perfectly. There's a scene where Cora earns work in a museum as a living exhibit piece on a set about slavery. She soon realizes that the slaves are the only ones played by real people. All of the white actors are mannequins. This gives the impression of Cora as a creature in a zoo exhibit. Plus, Cora notices that the stories the exhibit shares about slavery don't mesh with reality. I've visited my share of museums showing slavery in a way that strips it of its violence. Whitehead wants to dispel that myth, of ignoring the bloody violence of the institution. This is made clear when a fugitive slave returned to the Randall farm is punished by having his genitals cut from him, sewn in his mouth, and after three days he is burned alive.

Whitehead's prose is detached and choppy. He uses sentence fragments throughout and his style lacks any smoothness. It's rough, just like the treatment of slaves. Detached as the narrator is, Whitehead doesn't allow this narrator to keep emotional weight at bay. This is an emotionally powerful story, full of suspense, despair, sorrow, and, at times, even triumph. It's also an action-packed story, carrying the reader across several states, lulling the reader and characters into false senses of security before stripping it away. At times Whitehead does spend a bit much time on tangents, philosophizing on the personhood of the slave. While interesting, it does slow down the plot and it's not anything new for those versed on their slavery history. Yet it's only natural that he includes these passages. This is a thoughtful work, one that is filled with powerful moments and never dull.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Passing for Human, by Jody Scott

The only thing that Jody Scott's Passing for Human seems sure about is its manic energy. Each page crackles with an energy unsurpassed by none, and yet this energy is its undoing. Scott, I assume, is attempting to tackle serious social issues, yet her flippant tone makes it hard to take anything that happens seriously. The breathless way Scott jumps from action to action, idea to idea, leaves the reader with nothing to grasp, whether ideologically or visually. I see that the book was originally published in 1977, but never really took off, and now Scott's estate would like to see if her book will fare better after her death. I'm afraid this has aged a lot and many readers won't understand references to Emma Peel or Brenda Starr, though maybe that doesn't matter. The writing style may appeal to those who like frequent mentions of "zowie!" but to others it will grow tiring. This is sci-fi-lite, satire-lite, and just light stuff in general.

An alien race, the Rymesians, are observing Earth to determine whether the planet's dominant species, humans, known to Rymesians as bushmen, deserve to remain alive or not. On this quest is anthropologist Benaroya, often confusingly referred to as simply B. (lazy editing?), Brenda Starr, Brenda, Miss Star, Emma Peel, Emma, and Miss Peel, among other names. This grows more confusing when more Rymesians enter the fold and are referred interchangeably by their Rymesian name and their human body name. These Rymesians have dolphin bodies in their natural form, but a body is not truly important to them. Their souls, or consciousness, or what have you, are able to jump from body to body. Not in the sense that they can take control of any person, but they can jump into any empty body at any time. This is nothing based in any sort of science, but more of a spiritualism. Anyway.

A cliche story would take this concept and cause the alien to come to love the human race and want to save it. This is not a cliche story, but that's not to say this isn't what happens. It's very confusing, actually, what happens. Benaroya begins flying down the highway in a fancy car, being chased by police officers. Her skillful driving skills, however, cause them to crash and die. Then she provokes a frustrated woman into a race, causing her to crash and die as well. Benaroya, in her bikini Brenda Starr body, is arrested and within the hour has seduced her lawyer into having sex with her in his office and professing his love, and all the while she's just excited to have mated with a human so quickly. This may sound amusing, with a few zowies! and zoinks! thrown in for good measure, but it's actually more tiring than it sounds.

For one, Scott, or maybe just her characters, shovels venom upon the human race. It's tough to tell if Scott is the one so spiteful of the human race or just her alien characters, and it's also tough to tell exactly why she or they are so spiteful. Everything from the shape and makeup of human bodies to humanity's careless handling of Earth's resources is an object of scorn. But the scorn fails to do any true cutting because it's fired off like a five year old boy trying to aim his urine into the toilet and hitting the seat and floor instead. Somebody who agrees with her might not see a problem with some of her remarks, and I don't necessarily disagree, but the level of vitriol isn't really earned in the novel.

Scott certainly writes with a lot of manic energy, but another word I would use to describe her writing style is ephemeral. It fails to grasp anything - setting, character, satire - and the reader will have trouble grasping these things as well. The action at the beginning feels impossible. The car races through the streets seemingly without other vehicles or objects, without the limitations or noises or feelings of driving at such a speed. Characters move from area to area as though by means of teleportation. Benaroya proclaims hatred of the human species early in the book and mere chapters later somehow has a fondness of them and does not want them destroyed. I know Scott is trying to be funny and satirical, but her satire crosses some lines and teeters dangerously near to her seeming misanthropic. Scott seems to be using her Rymesians as a stand in for humans who view other humans and animal species as inferior and deserving of scorn. On the other hand, Scott also seems to be using her Rymesians as a vessel for her own dire view of humanity. While critiques of humanity are always needed, and always coming, there should be at least something constructive, not just hate.