Slice of Life: What? No Book?

I usually pack a bunch of books for travel, but I somehow didn’t this time. So, on the way to Alabama, I finished the book I had (Wonder) and I was left with only a magazine (Wired). Ack. Not good. I was able to survive on Saturday, since my day was packed, but I had that strange, vacant feeling as I entered the airport yesterday morning and realized that I had many hours to go … and nothing to read.

I picked up the Sunday New York Times. That helped. But you know … I needed a book. (And of course, I completely kicked myself for not splurging on a Sharon Draper book while we were at the same conference together — what was I thinking?)

I wandered the small Birmingham airport in a sort of daze. I needed a book. And I needed one bad.

Gosh, though, the Hudson news stands in airports stink for their selections, don’t they? I was staring at the titles on display on the wall and thinking: I won’t get a hard cover book unless it is a must-have book because I don’t want to pay $25. There were no must-have books. I glimpsed at all of the paperbacks … I don’t mean to sound snobbish, but they were just weren’t to my liking (and just how many darn books has James Patterson written, anyway? Holy cow.)

I finally fingered a short story collection by Stephen King (but wished his book, On Writing, was available. I would have scooped that up in a second.). It’s been some years since I have dove into King but he seemed the safest bet of the bunch.

This short story collection — Full Dark, No Stars — is incredibly dark, and violent. Well-written, to be sure, but man, I was hardpressed to keep reading the second story here. I know King can do macabre, but this was difficult reading due to the content. I skipped to the Afterward at one point, and King talks about acknowledging the difficulty a reader will have, as well as the difficulty he had in writing these stories. I appreciated that honesty and wished I wasn’t stuck with only this book on a two-hour flight.

Now that I am home, and only halfway through the collection, I am putting it aside. I may return someday, or not. I can’t rightly say. What I am happy to do, however, is reach into my pile of books by my bedside and start a must-read.

Peace (in the airport),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Nine Pound Hammer

The blood of American Tall Tales runs thick throughout this first book of a young adult series called The Clockwork Dark, which centers on the adventures of a 12-year-old boy, Ray, and his new magical friends who must battle an evil creature who seeks to destroy .. the world? Well, it wasn’t exactly always clear to me what the GOG wanted to do, to be honest, (nor why he needed a Siren to do it). While I was drawn in by the use of tall tales (particularly the fable of John Henry, and his son, and the nine pound magical hammer from which the book gets its name), I kept losing track of the story and the characters.

(And I appreciated the author’s notes at the end of the novel, as writer John Claude Bemis explained how he came up with the idea for the series after singing the traditional song about John Henry, and wanting to make a story that did not use European-centered themes of knights and quests, but one that tapped into Americana.)

I kept reading The Nine Pound Hammer, though, because I wanted to like the story (it helps that Bemis is a former teacher), and I would get rewarded at times with action and suspense, and interesting characters. It just felt unfocused and muddled one time too many for me. I wanted to be more centered on the John Henry angle, and I didn’t always get that. Darn it. (And the cover is so intriguing).

I don’t expect to keep reading the series, but maybe I will find a reader in my class who will be drawn in by the legend of Tall Tales and the sense of adventure.

Peace (in the hammer-time),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Tears from ‘Wonder’

So, there I was, on my way from home in Western Massachusetts to Birmingham, Alabama, relishing the time I could finally spend reading Wonder by RJ Palacio. I had actually won it in a blog contest through my teacher network (thanks, Colby!), and passed it along first to my son, who gave it back up to me for this trip. (He wants it back). I started the book in Hartford, continued it via my layover in Baltimore, and finished it en route to Birmingham.

It brought me to tears, this book did. And I found myself wishing fervently for a more private place than an aisle seat on an airplane, surrounded by strangers as I was caught up in the emotional ending in which the power of “kindness” hit me like a punch to the gut. This wonderful book is about a boy entering fifth grade, about what it means to be different, and what it means to find your place in the world where good can bubble up in expected places. I won’t give the plot away. I won’t say more about why I was tearing up, choking back emotion. You’ll have to read Wonder to figure that out (and you should.)

What I will say is that, every now and then, a book crosses my hands that reminds me of why I read and why I keep on reading — and why I sometimes suffer mediocre books in hopes that a jewel will surface. Wonder is one of those books. I know there more of these jewels out there. I’ll just have to keep on reading to find them.

Peace (in the slice),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods

3 gregor and the curse of the warmbloods

My son and I continue to delve into the Underland with Gregor and his crew. In the third installment of the series — Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods — a plague has been let loose on the Underland (that city beneath the city) and so, yet another adventure begins as 11-year-old Gregor must find a cure to save not only his friends, but his mother as well. In doing so, he must venture into a strange and forbidding forest growing underground, with giant plants not quite as timid as they first appear and some other creatures we have heard about but have not yet seen in the books before.

Writer Suzanne Collins continues a dark allegory of storytelling here, this time around how nations sometimes develop weapons that rub up against our own morality and ethics. How far is too far?  I won’t give the story away, except to say that Gregor sees his Underland companions in a different light by the end of this novel. We are also introduced to a few new intriguing characters — two humans who have been living outside of the safe city of Regalia in exile, and we lose a few friends along the way, too.

I have to admit: I am ready to take a break from Gregor for a bit, but my son has us now starting the fourth book (which we have been warned by a neighbor friend may be the darkest book of the five-book series). We’ll see where Gregor takes us, and whether we can climb back out of the Underworld, which is becoming increasingly tense and claustrophobic.

Peace (in the world beneath),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Distrust That Particular Flavor

I grew up on science fiction, devouring stories of space and machines, but it was discovering the early works of William Gibson in my 20s that opened my eyes and sparked my imagination on the ways in which technology and the digital world still yet unfolding at the time might become the setting and center of storytelling. Novels like Neuromancer and Virtual Light and Burning Chrome were wonderful immersions into possibilities, for good or ill. Over the years, I’ve followed and read Gibson as much as I can — some books I found more engaging than others, but perhaps that may have more to do with me as a reader than him as a writer.

His most recent book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, is not a novel but a collection of non-fiction essays and talks and magazine pieces that he has written over the years. While not nearly as strong as his fiction, the pieces in this collection give us an interesting view of Gibson, the writer, as well as Gibson, the reluctant futurist. For the novelist who is credited with coining the term “cyberspace,” Gibson has long harbored doubts about technology, and even admits to not using a computer or even the Internet for a long time (and then when he did, he discovered eBay — and that’s an entire story here). Those seeds of distrust spring up amid his early philosophy that technology would eventually create fundamental changes in culture, and his exploration of what the world would look like and how would character react to it.

What’s fascinating to me was to notice the publication dates on the pieces, and to try to place myself in the time when Gibson was writing some of these pieces. Some of articles and talks are about 20 years old now. He was thinking about what we now take for granted — all-the-time access, convergent informational flows, immersive worlds and more — before there was any reason to be thinking about it. I guess that’s what good writers do, though. And Gibson makes it clear here that while his stories might have been set in the future, the world and themes he was writing about were about the current times, and that had me trying to remember back to the storylines of the novels that captured my attention.

Distrust That Particular Flavor is somewhat uneven at times — even Gibson notes that he repeats similar themes and I found myself shuffling a bit through some of his pieces — but I always enjoy a journey into the mind and thinking, and craft, of a writer I admire, and this collection did that for me.

Peace (in the times),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Memoirs of a Muppets Writer

Spend some time watching Sesame Street or The Muppet Show and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there are very human people behind, or beneath, those puppets. It’s also easy to lose track that behind those people with those puppets, there is also a team of writers working hard with words to keep the illusion of character alive on the stage … eh, television screen.

Joseph Bailey, who pennedMemoirs of a Muppets Writer, is one of those scribes.

His book, which seems to be self-published, is an inside look at his career with Jim Henson and the company of writers and performers who worked hard to create a unique slice of comedy that entertains (and in the case of Sesame Street, educates) with wide appeal. Bailey brings the reader into the world of the Muppets, but his own career began first with Sesame Street, and it is fascinating to see what went on beyond the curtain as writers sought to create scripts with educational goals as well as entertainment value.

Later, with the Muppets in London (where The Muppet Show was produced after all the American television stations turned Henson down), Bailey brings us into the mayhem of the studio and inside the cramped offices of the Muppet writers. He brings the folks behind the scenes to life — writers and producers and performers such as  Richard Hunt, Jerry Juhl, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson. Jim Henson also gets some of the attention from Bailey, particularly after his unexpected death. You get the sense that Bailey was consciously not writing a “tell all” about Henson, though, and sought to protect Henson’s legacy.

Bailey is a writer, and it is inside the workings of the writing mind that he brings us in this book.

In particular, there are times in the book where he deconstructs his scripts and scenes, giving us readers an inside look at both the intent, the rewriting, the humor and more, and that kind of experience is valuable. Plus, he shares some history of various Muppet characters, and how they came to be (ie, Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle, etc.) Bailey also explains how Henson and the Muppet creators understood the medium of television in a way that many others did not, and used its elements to its full advantage.

Bailey lived and breathed the Muppet Show for many years as one of the men with pens (and earned an armload of writing awards for his work), and his memoir is a nice inside look at what that was like to be inside that somewhat crazy world as puppets took the world by storm.

Peace (inside a fuzzy puppet),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: The Berrybender Narratives

The Berrybender Narratives

It’s been a long time since I dipped my eyes into a good Western but I was in the mood for a little change of pace, and one should always rely on writer Larry McMurtry for good storytelling. The Berrybender Narratives, which was originally four books now brought into one large collection, is a fine example of McMurtry’s incredible talent: interesting and quirky characters, a non-romantic look at the American West during expansion, and a sweeping saga of one family’s endurance in history. There’s humor, danger, violence, compassion and true love within these covers.

American history is the underpinning, too. The impact of the travels of Lewis and Clark play out in the background and the war with Mexico at the Alamo comes into play. Historical figures come and go, or are references, in such a way as to place you in a time reference. This is history unfolding, but not from your typical diluted and sterile history textbooks.

The main story centers mostly on the Berrybender clan, a highbrow and rich family who have come from Europe to travel through the new frontier of America as tensions between the American Indians and the American government are shifting into high gear. The family is led by a drunk, and completely unpredictable, father who wants to hunt buffalo and Grizzly bear but the book really centers mostly around his eldest daughter, Tasmin, and her new American husband, Jim Snow — a trapper and frontiersman also known as The Sin Killer for his religious outbursts and justice-seeking violence. Even the indians fear The Sin Killer.

The relationship between Tasmin and Jim Snow is complicated. He is all about survival and quiet. She is all about understanding the world, and talking it through. She represents Europe; He, America. There is a kind of love but it doesn’t last, and the twists and turns in their interactions makes you never quite know where their relationship is going.

McMurtry wisely also brings us into the narrative minds of the American Indians who encounter the Berrbenders, particularly those whose suddenly realize that their time is almost up, and that the white Europeans — with their guns, and their plagues, and their sheer numbers — are about to change everything they have ever known. There’s a sadness to their plight (which we know from our historical perspective), but there is plenty of honor, too, in many of their stories. The rich tapestry that McMurtry weaves here is engrossing and powerful.

The Berrybender Narratives is no cowboys-and-indians story. It is a story with human suffering and human emotion at the center, but it is the rawness and roughness of the American West – the land, as character — that is both breathtaking and formidable to behold. The humans — of all races — never stand a chance, and yet, McMurtry allows us to see some energy of individualism bubble up through the narratives. It seems as if he is saying that partnership with the land itself will be the key to our survival.

Peace (in the wild west),
Kevin

 

A Box of (Graphic Novel) Books

Graph Novels Box

One of the perks of being a reviewer for a site like The Graphic Classroom is that every now and then, a box arrives and it is filled with books that a publisher hopes I will read and review. The other day, this large box arrived and it was full to the brim with new graphic novels. My sons plunked down and began reading. (They get the first shots at the books that come in — a deal I am happy to have made with them.) Later, I will bring appropriate ones to my classroom and maybe donate some to our school library, or to other teachers in my building. Gotta spread the graphic love.

Peace (in the box of books),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

My son and I ripped through this second book in the Gregor the Overlander series (by Suzanne Collins). Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane kicked up the story a notch, as Gregor is called on yet again to the save the Underland. This time, the threat is a white rat named The Bane and the prophecy seems to suggest that the killing of the rat will save the odd humans and allies who live in the land beneath the surface. The story begins with the kidnapping of Gregor’s baby sister and for much of the story, he is driven by revenge for her death (which doesn’t quite turn out to be true).

Collins nicely begins to reveal more of Gregor’s character and situation. Here, he learns he is a “rager,” or a creature with innate fighting abilities. Ragers are feared in the Underland for their indiscriminate fighting powers, and Gregor loses all control of himself when he is put into a raging situation. The moment when Gregor finally confronts the white rat — with his rager instincts almost in full gear — Collins throws a twist into the story (which I won’t reveal) that gives Gregor more complexity as a character than we had seen previously.

So, now we venture into the third book of the series: Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods.

Collins does a lot right with this series. Although the initial scenario has been done before (a world below), she really gives you that claustrophobic feeling, and provides tension at every corner of the adventure. She’s not afraid to kill off a character and the use of giant spiders, cockroaches, rats, bats and more are enough to give you the shivers at times. And her use of prophecies to guide the plot is wise, since the interpretations and misinterpretations give just enough twists to keep you on your toes.

My son and I are hooked and along for the ride with Gregor, although the action here can get a bit violent at times.

Peace (in the Underland)
Kevin

 

Comic Book Review: I Smell a Pop Quiz (Big Nate)

Big Nate is great.

I mean, as a teacher of sixth graders, the lead character in the Big Nate comic and books is like a collection of quirks from my own students (in a smaller body). This collection — I Smell a Pop Quiz! —  from creator Lincoln Peirce is another funny look at school through the eyes of Nate, who seems immune to most criticism, engulfed with big ideas that rarely pan out, and engaged with his odd assortment of teachers whose patience is continually tested.

Every now and then, I make copies of educationally-related comics and put them up anonymously through the areas where teachers go: in the copy room, in the mail room, etc. Hopefully, it generates a little levity with my colleagues.  I have a few panels from I Smell a Pop Quiz earmarked and ready to go. If you are a teacher, you can find plenty to laugh at here. And your students will enjoy this collection, too. While Peirce has also tried his hand at making novelized versions of Big Nate, they don’t work so well, in my opinion.

Big Nate belongs on the very small stage — in those three or four panels of funnies where the confines of the writing actually brings out the very best in Peirce’s writing and art.

Peace (in the panels),
Kevin