Sunday, October 4, 2009

Two Book Reviews

by Michael Chabon
Recommended Age: 12+

Ethan Feld is the worst baseball player in the history of Clam Island, Washington. His presence in right field, for one inning, can cost his little-league team a four-run lead. His batting is so bad, it's nonexistent; kids call him Dog because he just stands there, waiting for a walk. Everyone on the team hopes he won't show up for games. No such luck. Because Ethan's father, a widowed designer of personal and family dirigibles, is a team jersey-wearing, fanatical baseball lover.

Nevertheless, when a very peculiar talent scout spots Ethan, he recruits him to be a hero. A baseball hero. The hero who will save the world, if it can be saved.

You have to understand, first of all, that our world is only one of four main limbs growing out of the trunk of a tree. Known as the Middling to folks from outside, it lies between the Summerlands and the Winterlands - worlds populated by magical creatures such as werebeasts, sasquatches, and ferishers (don't call them fairies), giants, shaggurts, and Big Liars (basically, tall tales come to life). Certain people, called shadowtails, can travel from world to another, like squirrels hopping from branch to branch.

One thing all these worlds have in common is baseball. Its rules have magical, binding power in the Summerlands, as Ethan and his friends find during their quest. Pitchers can't shake off their catchers' signs. Magical "grammers" ensure a level playing field for all players, regardless of size. Heresies, such as the Designated Hitter rule, can break magical protections and doom entire communities.

Playing his way across the Summerlands, Ethan gathers a motley team of players to his quest to save his father, and to stop Coyote - also known as the Changer, a type of devil - from carrying out his plan to end all existence as we know it. As he studies the art of being a catcher, Ethan takes tips and help from a tomboy, an android, a very small giant, a wererat and a werefox, a couple of ferishers, a washed-up professional player, and a female sasquatch named Taffy. He faces teams of giants, fairies, the "bowling men" who make thunder in the mountains, and some of the toughest ruffians ever to spit tobacco juice in the dugout. He also faces his own weakness and inadequacy, his deepest fears and desires, and the power in his pain.

This book is a big, beautiful gift to kids, especially kids who like baseball and/or stories of wonder and magic. It blends the two as few books do: The Boy Who Saved Baseball and Two Hot Dogs with Everything come to mind, but they aren't in this book's league.

It's so filled with ideas that it will make your gray cells dance. It has a huge sense of humor, including some of the best laughs I have had in a long time. It has a little bit of Native American spirituality (occult-sensitive readers beware), a twist of Nordic mythology, a strong vein of American folklore, and a faint but charming Yiddish lilt. It is packed with characters you will cheer for, scenic descriptions of breathtaking beauty, psges of terrific dialogue, delicious new words such as "squatchlings," and baseball games that could well make a believer of the meanest skeptic. It's a healing book, a challenging book, a book jocks and dweebs can share, a book parents can share with their kids. It might be (oooh, here it comes) the Best Book I've Read This Year.

Michael Chabon is the owner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and a Nebula award for The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a sci-fi novel set in an alternate timeline. His book Wonder Boys was adapted for the screen by Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves. His other titles include Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a mystery called The Final Solution, and a short-story collection titled Werewolves in Their Youth. If the joyful, generous, overflowing-with-wit writing style of Summerland is typical of his books, I expect to enjoy all of them in time.

Tales of Ancient Egypt
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Age: 10+

What he did for Greek myths and legends and the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur, noted folklorist and biographer Roger Lancelyn Green now does for the tales of myth, magic, and adventure from one of the world's oldest and most distinctive cultures.

Isolated by geography, fed and watered by the Nile, the ancient civilization of Egypt developed a unique outlook on life and death, with special emphasis on the latter. Their long, unbroken line of kings, together with a compulsion to build monuments to the dead that have endured for thousands of years, enables us to look back over an incredibly vast period of history, putting us in touch with the strange stories people told each other four or five thousand years ago. Lancelyn Green helps us make sense of these stories, explaining them and organizing them so that their power and grandeur inspire awe and wonder, rather than confusion.

Here are the stories of the gods of Egypt, such as Amen-Ra, Osiris, Isis, and Horus - similar yet different to the characters in the mythology of other cultures. We appreciate, though perhaps never understand, why some of the gods are represented by animals (or by human figures with the heads of animals), such as Anubis the dog and Horus the falcon.

The later stories of magicians, thieves, divine-human Pharaohs, shipwrecks, and wars are set in the context of a religion that adored Osiris, god of the underworld, expected to return from Duat with the blessed dead and to make Egypt an everlasting paradise. The tales have wit, family drama, excitement, and more than the usual dose of spookiness. And they leave one in awe of the endurance of so many stories for such a long time - stories that make the human beings who dwell in them, and who told them, seem so close and vibrantly alive.

I think parents of all religious persuasions should read books like this with their children, read and discuss them. All English-speaking people can enjoy and benefit from such tales, which at the very least give us the magic of story (a type of magic that harms no one) and a perspective on the variety of human culture and the mystery of history. With Lancelyn Green telling the tale, the medicine goes down very easily indeed. I can hardly imagine a better introduction to a subject that some fascinated readers may choose to study in greater depth and detail.

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