Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ethical Lessons from 13 Year Old Boys

Last night, with one chapter left to go in Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, I made myself stop reading it.  I was afraid that if I finished it, I would never get to sleep because I'd have so many thoughts about the story swirling in my head.  However, if I knew I'd be able to read the last chapter in the morning, I could try to "sleep fast"** to get there.

The main character in BSG is Jason Taylor, a 13 year old boy growing up in rural, but upper middle class, England.  Jason has a stammer, which he explains is different from a stutter.  Taking place over the course of a year, Jason's social status fluctuates, with him being a king for a few precious days, and a pariah for most of the others.  He is tormented by bullies, but finds the strength to get through. 

Jason's relationship with his family is also strained.  His parents are going through a rocky patch in their marriage, and his sister is getting ready to go off to college.  The inability of a family to communicate with each other is one of my favorite themes, and Mitchell conveys this tension like one who knows it well. 

I have three favorite quotes from BSG, all from the chapter titled "souvenirs".

First is this, where Jason is talking to a woman in an antique store:
Jason:  "You don't know my parents"
Woman:  "The question here is, 'Do you'"
Jason:  "Of course I do.  We live in the same house."
Woman:  "You break my heart, Jason.  Oh, you break my freakin' heart."

The second is Jason, after watching his mom stop shoplifters in her store: 
"I noticed a new need that's normally so close-up you never know it's there.  You and your mum need to like each other.  Not love, but like."

The last is Jason, immediately after deciding that he likes his mum:
"Good moods're as fragile as eggs."
"Bad moods're as fragile as bricks"

As I was reading BSG,  I was really liking it, but it was reminding me of another book that I had read, and I just couldn't place which one it was. Finally, it came to me - The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt.

The Wednesday Wars is a children's book, which won Newbery Honors.  I first read it to my son when he was in 4th grade.  My son loves it when a book that I am reading to him makes me cry, and Wednesday Wars did a couple of times.  It's strange though, that Black Swan Green would remind me of a children's book.  My sister bought BSG for me, saying that it was one of her favorites, and her taste is generally (and in all things) much more sophisticated than mine.

Black Swan Green is set in rural England, in 1982, the year of the war in the Falkland Islands.  It is the story of one year in the life of a 13 year old boy, Jason Taylor.  Jason secretly writes poetry and is terrified that his "friends" will find out and make fun of him.  Jason's friends already make fun of him because of his stammer, which sometimes keeps him from saying certain letters.  Adults reach out to Jason to encourage his poetry and give him hope that the bullies won't win in the end.  Jason sees hypocrisy in the adults, including his parents, who want to keep gypsies from settling in their area.  Jason lives with his parents and his older sister.  Through the story, his parents' marriage disintegrates, and his relationship with his sister shows signs of strength.  The author has said that the story is semi-autobiographical.

The Wednesday Wars is set on Long Island, in 1967-68, during the Vietnam War.  It is the story of one school year in the life of a 13 year old boy, Holling Hoodhood.  Holling secretly acts in a Shakespeare play, and is terrified that his friends will find out and make fun of him.  Some kids in the school already bully Holling, and he is singled out for being Presbyterian in an otherwise Catholic and Jewish town.  Adults reach out to Holling to encourage his love of Shakespeare, and to compensate for a lack of attention paid to him by his parents.  Holling sees hypocrisy in adults who are mean to Vietnamese refugees.  Holling lives with his parents and his older sister.  Through the story, his parents' marriage shows signs of cracking, and his relationship with his sister becomes a lifeline to them both.  The author has said that the story is semi-autobiographical.

So, what makes one of these a critically acclaimed children's book, and the other a critically acclaimed book for adults?  The line is really not so clear.  I read Wednesday Wars to my son when he was in 4th grade, and to my daughter when she was in 6th.  The Typical Book Group also read it, after so many of us were talking about reading it with our kids.  Now my son is 13 and in 8th grade, and I think he's ready for Black Swan Green.  He is definitely mature enough for the content, but I'm not sure that he's ever read a book set in England with so many British phrases.  It might get frustrating for him to not know that "nick" means "steal" or that "snogging" is good, but he is very close to being ready for it.  Ready for reading the book I mean, not for snogging.

In both books, the 13 year old boys face ethical challenges that would be difficult for adults to manage.  The boys show their character, and do what is right, even when they really want to do the opposite. 

I guess my point is, if you liked Black Swan Green, and you have kids who are in 4th-7th grade, buy them The Wednesday Wars.  If you read The Wednesday Wars with your kids and you loved it, you will also love Black Swan Green.  I loved Black Swan Green, will add it to my Favorites list, and am looking forward to reading Cloud Atlas by Mitchell, which my sister also gave to me.

My favorite quote from The Wednesday Wars is this:
After Holling's sister returns home after a failed trip to California
Dad, to sister, very sarcastically:  "Did you find yourself?"
Sister, unbelieving: "What?"
Dad:  "Did you find yourself?"
Holling:  "She found me."

I can only hope that some day, my kids who fight daily over issues of such importance as who gets to sit in the front seat, will find each other too.

**My mom used to tell me to "sleep fast" when I was little.  I know right?  How does one sleep fast?  It usually meant that something great was going to happen in the morning, and that I needed to get to sleep quickly in order to get enough sleep to wake up early in the morning to enjoy it.  Like "we're going to Disney World in the morning, sleep fast!"  I also always thought that it was a wish that the night would go by quickly so that the morning could come sooner.  I tell my kids to "sleep fast" now, and they know what I mean.  It's strange, the things you do, that your parents did, that you never planned to do.

One more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up:  March by Geraldine Brooks

Still Listening to:  Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Story of The Fakes

As I've mentioned in the last two posts, I really loved Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta.  The story is that of a brother and a sister through the brother's attempts to achieve success in the music industry.  The sister, Denise, is clearly the brother's biggest fan.  The brother, Nik, comes closest to making it big twenty years before present day in the novel. 

Spiotta is telling the story not of the "one hit wonder", but of a no hit wonder, as Denise observes.  When Nik realizes that critics aren't going to write about him, he writes his own reviews.  When there are no longer newspaper clippings to put into a scrapbook, Nik makes his own scrapbook, featuring what could have happened, as though it really did.  Nik creates bands, puts out CDs and even invents elaborate back stories for all of the band members, who are all really Nik himself.  Denise is somewhat concerned about the degree of attention that Nik pays to his alternate universe, but is also somewhat in awe.  Nik's attention to detail is such that, as he brags, if his Chronicles were to be discovered in the future, they would be believed as truth.

In addition to being Nik's biggest (only?) fan, Denise fills her time by taking care of her mother who is drifting into dementia, and struggling to have a relationship with her boyfriend and her daughter.  When Denise's daughter, Ada, decides to make a documentary about Nik, to show the world what an amazing artist he is, Denise questions her own loyalties, and her long held convictions.  Spiotta (through Denise) defines a family as being several people who all share in the same delusion.  Whether Nik is suffering under a delusion, or is an under appreciated genius, is the key question that Denise just can't answer.

Spiotta's writing seems effortless.  Stone Arabia  is only 235 pages, and it whizzed right by.  I would have liked another 200 pages, and it seemed as if Spiotta might have had enough material to fill that many pages, but just decided that it wasn't necessary.  The story ends without tying up neatly, and really, it's better that way. 

If you liked A Visit to the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, you will love Stone Arabia.  Like Goon Squad, Stone Arabia seems to give the reader an insight into the music industry, and into the souls of the artists.  I think that I will add this one to my list of Favorites as well.  I haven't said all that I would like to say about Stone Arabia, but I'm worried that what I still want to say might spoil the story for you.  If you would like to read my Stone Arabia spoilers, click here.

One more down for the Support your Library Challenge!

Next up:  Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Can of Worms

Helen of Troy by Margaret George is an enormous novel exploring the life of Helen of Troy, and the Heroes that lived in her time.  George is a master of the long, historical fiction novel.  Prior to Helen, I had also read The Autobiography of Henry VIII and The Memoirs of Cleopatra by George.  The difference here is that while the books about Henry and Cleopatra were true historical fiction, Helen may just be fiction.

To my mind, and I would guess, in the minds of most Americans, Helen is every bit as real as Cleopatra. We know her legacy:  she was the face that launched 1000 ships.  We know about the Trojan war, even if we think that it was Trojans hiding inside of the famous horse.  But apparently, historians generally believe that Helen is a myth. 

In the myth, Helen is a beautiful woman who was born of her mother Leda, and the god, Zeus.   When Helen was deciding which suitor to marry, her father made all 40 eligible bachelors, who were mostly princes and kings, swear that they would uphold Helen's choice, and defend the marriage.  Helen chose Menelaus, but never fell in love with him because she forgot to thank the goddess of love, Aphrodite.  As vengeance, Aphrodite casts a spell on Helen, causing her to fall in love with the younger Paris, Prince of Troy.  Helen loves Paris so much that she flees Sparta to move with him to Troy, leaving Menelaus and their child, Hermione, behind.  Helen and Paris don't believe that the suitors will actually uphold their promise and defend her marriage, but that is exactly what they do.  All of the suitors bring their armies and besiege Troy, resulting in the 10 year Trojan war.  The war finally ends when the Greeks pretend to retreat from Troy, but leave behind a giant wooden horse, as a tribute to the goddess, Athena.  Instead, the horse concealed some of the strongest Greek warriors, who would wait until the Trojans fell asleep, then sneak out of the horse, and open the gates of Troy so that all the other Greek warriors could enter. The Greek warriors included Odysseus, Achilles, Patroclus, Ajax, and many of the other "characters" from The Odyssey and The Iliad.

Although I have told you all of this, I haven't really spoiled the story for you.  First of all, you probably knew everything that I have just said already.  Second of all, what I say in one paragraph, George spreads over 638 pages.

So my question to you is this:  why do we call Helen a myth?  According to Wikipedia, the legend of Helen dates back to at least the 7th century B.C.  In her Afterward, George states that there is great debate among historians not just as to whether Helen existed (she is generally thought not to have) but whether Troy existed, and even if Troy existed, if there was a Trojan War.  Wikipedia seems to say that Troy did exist, and that there probably was a Trojan War, even if there was no Helen.

So I guess, if I am honest with you, my question is why do we believe in Jesus and not in Helen?  What makes the Bible more "historically accurate" than The Odyssey?  George says that Helen is believed to be fictional because "no evidential corroboration" exists.  Is there evidence of Jesus?  The story of Helen, Odysseus and  the other Heroes is even older than his story, so evidence should be even less likely to exist.  Homer wasn't the only person to write of these people, even though the story was likely handed down orally for years before it was committed to paper, much like the Bible. 

One reason that we may not be ready to "believe in" Helen and the Heroes is the idea of there being many gods who interacted in the lives of normal people.  But really, couldn't the gods have just been an excuse?  "I didn't mean to leave my husband, Aphrodite made me do it."  Any undesirable feelings could be explained by blaming them on the gods.  Achilles (according to George) was feared like a god, but known to be mortal during his life.  After his death, his legend made him into a god.  Don't we do this now?  We take famous people who do great (or not great as much as well publicized) things and worship them.  Would the ancient Greeks have felt that Kim Kardashian must be the child of a god?  Perhaps.

So George has told a great story, but I think that for me, she has opened a can of worms.  I want to know more about the "gods", the "heroes", Sparta, Troy, and why the stories are widely considered myths.  Although this story took me over a month to listen to on CD, I still want more.  Can I give a stronger endorsement?

To make it even better, this one is another Challenge double countsey.  I have had the book in my drawer, so it counts for the Off the Shelf Challenge, but I listened to it on CD, which I checked out from the library, so it counts for the Support Your Library Challenge too!

Next Up On CD:  Following Atticus:  Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan

Almost Done Reading:  Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta.  This book is so good that I made myself stop reading it last night so that it will last longer.  I will certainly finish tonight.

Correction:  Last entry, I told you that The Typical Book Group will be reading Paris Wife by Paula McLain next.  We will not.  Instead we will read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Typical Book Group Report - 5

Tonight's Typical Book Group meeting was absolutely not typical.  For one thing, we met outside.  In March.  In Michigan.  Today the temperature hit 82 degrees, which was a new record for any day in March in Metro Detroit, ever.  It is terrible for me to be in favor of global warming, but on a day like today . . .

We met to discuss This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman.  My typical book groupers felt the same way that I did about this book.  We expected so much!  We got so little.  We really felt that although the story was supposed to be about Jake, we  didn't get to know much about him.  As you may recall, this story is about a boy who is under 18, who receives a video from a younger girl who he kissed at a party.  The video shows her naked, and apparently masturbating.  The boy forwards the video to one friend, and it goes viral.  It seems that there is a lot of material there, but the characters really didn't have much depth.

All told, we talked about the book for about 20 minutes.  We talked about our superintendent's unexpected resignation for 30 or more, and about miscellaneous things that seemed more interesting for another hour.  So, in that respect, we were typical after all.

For next month, The Typical Book Group decided to read Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  I already read that book for The Friends Book Group.  My friend, Kim, is also in both book groups, so we decided to take on additional assignments.  She is going to read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, which features prominently in Paris Wife, and I am going to read A Movable Feast, also by Hemingway, about his Paris years.

Still Reading:  Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta.  I am LOVING this book.  More soon.

Still Listening To:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George.  2 discs left!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Everlasting Emma

Finally, I have finished Emma by Jane Austen.  It seemed so strange to me that I could not remember ever reading a Jane Austen book, that I bought Emma when I saw it at a used book sale.  Then, since I could get it for free for my Kindle, it rushed to the top of my reading list.  Hint:  if it is free for your Kindle, that is because no one wants to read it.

Emma was a fine story of 20 or so people living in the English countryside, with nothing to do but visit each other.  I will credit Austen with beautifully recreating the monotony that must have prevailed in those days.  But who wants to read a monotonous book?  Austen has legions of fans, but I can't count myself among them.

If you are ever feeling the urge to read some Austen, save yourself some time and rent Clueless.  As I mentioned earlier, Clueless captures the full story in Emma, but also manages to make it interesting.

One more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up:  Stone Arabia  by Dana Spiotta

Still Listening to:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George.  I'm on disc 20!  Only another week(ish) and I'll be done.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

All Tortoise, No Hare

Well, I wasn't expecting to have to give a "half time report" about Emma by Jane Austen, but the reading is going so slowly that I feel the need!  Emma is only about 400 pages, but it is taking me forever.  Right before I started reading, I was at my friend, Kim's house, trying to have a conversation with her.  It wasn't going so well because I couldn't take my eyes off of her TV.  Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone was on, and I couldn't help but watch it, even though I had seen it several times before.  Kim mentioned that she had heard that Clueless was based on Emma

Every once in a while a movie comes out that is supposed to be a modern day adaptation of a classic, and usually, it is hard to identify which classic they are trying to mimic.  In the case of Clueless, however, the adaptation is spot on.  As I read about Emma and Harriett, I am picturing Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy.  In a clever jab at lawyers, Clueless replaces Emma's feeble and nervous father with Cher's distracted litigator dad.  Both daughters think that their dads are helpless without them, and so far at least in the book, they are right.  I just hit the 52% complete mark on my Kindle last night, so I still have a lot of story to cover.

I'm not exactly plowing through Helen of Troy by Margaret George, either.  When I checked it out of the library on CD, I knew that it was 30 hours of story of 25 CDs, but I wasn't expecting it to take quite so long.  I'm only on the 14th disc now, and I started listening almost a month ago.  Right now, the Greeks are just beginning to attack the Trojans.  In this story, which most modern scholars think is only a myth, a 25 year old woman falls in love and runs off with a 16 year old man.  If we adapted this story to modern times, Helen would be a teacher and Paris would be her student.  Instead of leading to war, the "love" would lead to jail  for the woman.  You would think that the story of Helen would be enough to remind young teachers that their enticing students are just not worth it.

In Other News:   Here is a great article about Jonathan Safran Foer turning 35.   It is framed in the form of questions, in honor of his recently released Haggadah.  The article is more personal than others that I have read, and explores his relationships with his parents and grandparents, most specifically in regard to his first book, Everything is Illuminated.  My favorite part of the article is toward the end, where the author, Aleksandar Hemon is discussing JSF's special attention to Hemon's 4 year old daughter after Hemon and his wife lost their 1 year old child in 2010.  "[Ella] has a huge plush shark which he sent to her around that time, which she calls Jonathan, and sleeps with the shark."  How could I not think of JSF's wife's book, Great House?  In that book, which was published in 2010, a character writes a story about people sleeping, and being attached by electrodes to a shark in a tank.  The shark absorbs all of their nightmares and things that are too difficult to bear, so that they can sleep in peace.  Sweet dreams, Ella.
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