Thursday, June 4, 2009

Four Book Reviews

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

The year is 18__. The army regiment camped in the English village of Meryton belongs to the ___shire Militia. A certain character is found living in ____ Street, London. And when the young gentlemen are out of sight of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, we neither know nor care what they are doing or discussing among themselves. My, what a lot Miss Austen leaves blank!

But that's all right. For on the genteel country estate of Longbourn, where the Bennets live with their five eligible daughters, all that matters is what the young men do around the young ladies. Will Jane, the eldest Miss Bennet, catch Mr. Bingley of the nearby estate of Netherfield? Will Elizabeth, the second-eldest daughter, triumph over the haughty Mr. Darcy? What will become of the two youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia, who are forever flirting with men in uniform? And will their parents -- the idle, eccentric Mr. Bennet and the nervous, weak-minded Mrs. Bennet -- help or hinder in the complex web of romantic schemes, rivalries, disappointments, and duels of wit that swirl around both couples, and others besides?

Here is a classic novel that glows with warm humor, lampooning a variety of human weaknesses through one of English lit's most colorful galleries of characters. In a rapid-fire series of social encounters, conversations, letters, pleasure trips, and sleepless nights full of disturbed thoughts and feelings, Jane Austen constructs a novel of awe-inspiring completeness. She brings off a balancing act of tone and pacing, realism and conceit with such success that you may not notice it at all. With its mild demeanor and cool outlook, Pride and Prejudice makes an unforgettable impression, and one of our language's great authors proves that a book doesn't have to be about the "larger issues." After 200 years, it's still great entertainment.

I had been toying with the idea of reading some Jane Austen since I read an analysis of one of my favorite authors, Patrick O'Brian, which compared him to her. I was putting off seeing a recent film based on this book until I had read it first. The final nudge, however, was the appearance of the irresistable spoof titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I knew I was going to enjoy the joke, but only if I read the book it was a joke on. So I screwed up my eyes, pinched my nose, and prepared to take my medicine...

And, surprise! It wasn't so awful after all. In fact, Pride and Prejudice is a delight to read. Even coming from a fan of Charles Dickens that's saying a lot. For reading a Dickens novel often requires a certain effort, strength of concentration, and planning to ensure it is taken in regular 3- or 4-chapter doses, lest one's interest should burn out. In comparison, Pride and Prejudice is surprisingly plain-spoken and direct, fast to read and certain to give pleasure.

It begins with a memorable premise: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Out of this decree unfolds a delicate romantic comedy of manners set in England around the turn of the 19th century. And it's told from the point of view of a young, unmarried gentlewoman named Elizabeth Bennet, who is ready to be found and claimed by just such an eligible man.

To some of us, reading a novel from such a point of view may seem like an exercise in ancient history -- albeit a history with no politics, no battlefields, no great events. It is a moment in time viewed from the drawing room of a small manor house in Hertfordshire. The only things that seem to interest the males who pass through it are related to the concerns of the females sitting in it. Chief of these interests is the pairing-off of eligible gentlemen and ladies, as much for economic advantage as for reasons of the heart.

Today, perhaps, Austen's book risks being condemned for presenting a "sexist" view of the different roles of men and women, a "classist" view of society (in which the servants are virtually invisible and "good breeding" is synonymous with "proper conduct"), and a strict morality of love and marriage that might seem strange today but was taken for granted then. But if our world's moral and social values have changed since then, it is not for our age to judge Austen's. The present state of the world bears witness that mankind has not yet found perfect enlightenment.

But in reading a book like this, we can be enlightened about a world that was, at least in the eyes of a captivating character like Eliza Bennet. And lest we forget, a woman wrote this novel, from a woman's sensibility, capturing a woman's view of the world with a wit and a grace that continue to entertain two centuries later. Some have ventured to call it a perfect novel. In my opinion, they aren't far from the truth.

by Mark Jean & Christopher C. Carlson
Recommended Ages: 10+

I haven't seen this book around very much, but I hope you find it. If you do, you're in for a treat. For between its covers lies a fantasy world that is both adorable and terrifying, both eerily familiar and totally original. And the entrance to that world is, of all things, a puddle of water in an Illinois wheat field.

The chief denizens of that hidden world are little people with the webbed fingers and toes. They're called (surprise!) Puddlejumpers, though I'm not sure how that's spelled in their language. They don't speak English, but something more closely tied to the spirit of the earth -- an Ojibwe dialect, maybe? Whatever language it is, it has a prophecy in it that a Rainmaker will be born in the world above: the world of humans. And unless that Rainmaker battles the evil Troggs and the forces of the Most Dark, both worlds will shrivel up and die.

The story opens on the night the promised Rainmaker is born. Born at the moment of his mother's death in a farmhouse near Center, Illinois, Shawn Frazier has it pretty good for a while. His widowed father Russ gets over his heartbreak and dotes on his son, while the boy also enjoys the friendship of the little people who only show themselves to him. But after six months, the Puddlejumpers decide to keep baby Shawn for themselves, the better to prepare him for his heroic role. Topside, this means Russ is devastated by the complete disappearance of his only child. Down-below, however, it is the beginning of great things for the Wawaywo, as the Puddlejumpers call him.

Three years later, disaster strikes. Or rather, the Troggs do. The Puddlejumpers are forced to flee with a human toddler many times larger than themselves. In an escape of breathtaking desperation, the child is separated from his tiny guardians, found by a truck driver, and left on the steps of an orphanage in Chicago with no clues about where he came from except a crystal acorn (from the Puddlejumpers) and an Ernie Banks baseball card (from the truck driver).

So the wild Wawaywo child, who remembers nothing of being Shawn Frazier, grows up as a Chicago orphan named - guess what! - Ernie Banks. The cruelty of the dormitory matron pushes Ernie into one act of defiance after another, until the only thing standing between him and the state reformatory is a summer stint as a farm laborer. And by a chance more remarkable than Ernie understands, the farm belongs to Russ Frazier!

Ernie finds the country around Center, Illinois, depressed by a long drought and terrorized by the Holsapple family, who have been strip-mining every acre of land they can get hold of. Befriended by a girl named Joey, inspired by the kindness of a man he doesn't know is his own father, Ernie vows to solve the mystery of the Quilt Baby -- which is to say, his own disappearance. But before he works it all out, he must renew his acquaintance with a secret world threatened by enemies too terrifying for any ordinary boy to face. And face them he must, because not only the Puddlejumpers' world but his own family and community are at stake.

I found this book on the discount table at Borders last December, and forgot about it till now. I won't forget it again soon. It is a powerful, vividly imagined tale, told with great energy and conviction. I also suspect that, hidden in the description of the Most Dark that overshadows the climax of the book, there is an environmental message that will make it even more meaningful to green-conscious kids. But that's up to the reader to decide for himself. I hope a lot of readers will find it, one way or another.

Leon and the Champion Chip
by Allen Kurzweil
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this sequel to Leon and the Spitting Image, Leon Zeisel goes back to the Manhattan Classical School for a fifth-grade year every bit as magical and exciting as his fourth-grade one. His fanatical devotion to potato chips inspires the new science teacher, Mr. Sparks, to structure the entire school year around the study of chips. In return, Mr. Sparks' lessons inspire Leon to apply the scientific method to the magical gift he discovered last year: creating a "remote control" for other human beings.

Last year, Leon combined a doll-sized replica of his mean homeroom teacher, Mrs. Hagmeyer, with a well-judged quantity of spit. The result was a "spitting image" that gave Leon control over Mrs. Hagmeyer's movements. This year, Leon wants to use the same technique to give the school bully his comeuppance. But the initial doll doesn't work. Nor do versions 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, or 3.0, even though Leon and his two best friends put a massive amount of scientific study into each attempt.

Finally, they realize that they need one last ingredient - but it will cost them some money. And there seems to be no way they can make that kind of money, unless Leon wins a contest of potato-chip knowledge against some of the greatest living potato-chip professionals in the world. Leon's quest for a system of identifying any brand of chip is as funny, exciting, and educational as the science fair in which Leon's friends present a range of chip-related science projects, in hopes of saving Mr. Sparks' job. And of course, you've got to love what happens when Fathead 4.0 actually works. I don't want to give it away, but it's not every day you see the school bully make himself a hot fudge sundae. Heh, heh.

All right, I've got to do it: I'm issuing an Occult Content Advisory on this book, because its hero and his close friends exhibit magical thinking and use procedures derived from the magical arts to exert control over other people. Those who are concerned about this won't feel relieved by the fact that it's all done by the sweetest kids imaginable, in extenuating circumstances, and in the context of a quirky, juvenile adventure in which good prevails over bad, etc. On the other hand, people who object to magical thinking only because it's the opposite of scientific analysis will find that this book more than overcomes their objections. In fact, in a grade-school classroom it could prove both popular and instructive, somewhat like the Chicago-based books of Blue Balliett.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey
by Trenton Lee Stewart
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this second book about the Mysterious Benedict Society, four young geniuses are brought together a year after their first, hair-raising adventure. This time, they are expecting only a safe, amusing series of puzzles. But instead, a villain's sudden reappearance forces them down another road.

Or rather, it forces them down the same road - an international scavenger hunt with clues set by their dear Mr. Benedict - only it isn't safe or amusing anymore. Not with dangerous enemies tracking them, and good friends being held hostage, and the skipper of the fastest cargo ship on the Atlantic acting suspiciously. Not when they're running from business-suited "ten men," so named because they carry ten innocent-looking instruments of torture and death. Not when an evil mastermind is laying a trap ahead of them. And most certainly not when, by successfully solving Mr. Benedict's clues, they may be placing a terrible weapon into the evil mastermind's hands.

So it won't be a cheerful, picturesque romp through Portugal, the Netherlands, and an island off the coast of Scotland. But if any four kids are equal to the task, they're these four: Reynie, whose intuition is nearly always right; Sticky, whose mind collects knowledge as flypaper collects flies; Kate, who relies on her circus training and physical courage for hands-on problem solving; and Constance Contraire, who is remarkably advanced for her age, and who has powers no one has guessed.

What makes this book especially interesting is how four very different children rely on the strength of their friendship, plus some well-placed nudges from Reynie (who is good at diplomacy), to keep working together under pressure like this. It is an adventure whose four young heroes become intimately acquainted with their own, and each other's, flaws and limitations. It is a series of puzzles that many a young reader may enjoy working out with the characters, culminating in a set of battles, standoffs, and chases in which they match wits with some awfully clever and well-organized bad guys.

I must confess that I have been hooked on this series since the first book wowed me. I was not at all disappointed with the sequel. So I will be looking out for the third book, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma, coming in October 2009.

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