Monday, December 19, 2011

Balliett, Birdsall, Dostoevsky, Gaiman

The Calder Game
by Blue Balliett
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, three clever young unconventional thinkers from Chicago, USA, find themselves caught up in a life-endangering mystery in a small English town. Calder, Tommy, and Petra are still working out the whole "trio of friends" thing when Calder, the best friend in the middle, gets pulled out of the deck by a chance to visit the U.K. with his father. Tommy and Petra are still at the mutually-irritating, jealous-of-each-other stage of getting used to having to share Calder's friendship, and now suddenly they have to work together to help Mr. Pillay (Calder's dad) and the authorities find their friend.

Why? Because Calder has disappeared, silly! What could be behind his missing-persons case? Could it be a case of foul play? The fact that an unpopular piece of modern art, recently placed in the village square by an anonymous donor, also happened to disappear on the same night as Calder, makes that seem likely. But why would anyone want to kidnap Calder? And whether that happened or something else—such as an accident, or maybe getting lost in a hedge maze—how long do his friends have to find Calder before the chances of recovering him safely shrink to zero?

Tommy and Petra apply their own brand of unconventional thinking to solving these riddles; and sometimes, they try thinking like Calder himself—an exercise that has a weirdly high success rate, not only in solving problems but in bringing together two awkward kids, a grumpy old lady, and others.

Being used to the diet and habits of the common, or garden, children's mystery, you may be surprised by this story. It doesn't resolve itself as easily as you might expect. The solution to the mystery is both deceptively simple and scarily dangerous. And the whole adventure is kind of a sneaky way to get kids interested in the unusual, three-dimensional art work of Alexander Calder, the historic and scenic wonders of the Blenheim Palace and its neighborhood, and some further applications of those good old Pentominoes that you might not want to try at home.

This book will especially appeal to kids who are interested in history, art, foreign travel, and the type of education that isn't reduced to preparing for standardized tests. It might be a good book for teachers to read, too. If they learn the lesson one teacher in the book learns, more schools might become places of real learning and discovery. Or they might enjoy the book, at least. That could happen too. For more adventures of Calder and friends, look up the fourth book in the series, titled The Danger Box.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street
by Jeanne Birdsall
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Penderwicks, the four vivacious Penderwick sisters continue their adventures beyond the end of summer vacation, into the next school year. Strange but true: all adventures don't take place during school holidays!

Take, for example, the Save Daddy Plan. The time has come for the girls' widowed father to start dating again. Even their late mother agrees; in fact, a letter she left behind proves that it was her idea. Eldest daughter Rosalind, however, fears that dating might lead to a stepmother, and all kinds of awful changes. Their strategy? To set their father up on the most miserable dates imaginable, so none of those changes need to happen. Of course, nobody takes into account such wildcards as the possibility that Daddy may be going on phony dates because he doesn't like the idea either; or that the young widow next door might be just the kind of addition to the family everyone would like.

Then there are the boys across the street, especially football-mad Tommy, whose feelings for Rosalind are confusing to everybody, most of all himself. And middle sisters Skye and Jane are up to their own brand of trouble, starting when they swap homework assignments and snowballing from there. Batty, the baby of the family, adds a keen edge of chaos as she puts her new red wagon through all its paces, anoints herself detective in the case of the suspicious Bug Man, and tries to teach the toddler next door to say anything besides "Duck."

You might think that I've spoiled the whole book by now, but I really haven't. The charm of it lies in how the Penderwicks talk with each other, the girls' hilarious thought processes, and the everyday distractions that keep them from seeing what's going on right in front of them. It's a warm, funny, gentle book featuring a loving and lovable family, right down to the incredibly smart dog (who always knows when a "woof" is needed). Laughing with the Penderwicks might be especially good for some teen and preteen girls who need to learn to step back and laugh at themselves sometimes. The charms of the story speak for itself. And a third book in the series, titled The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, is now available.

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+

I would like to thank the Saint Louis County Library system, Recorded Books LLC, audiobook reader George Guidall, and translator Constance Garnett for making it possible for me to enjoy this book during my daily drive to and from work, one hour each way. I had always been intimidated by this book and had never gotten any closer to reading it than having a copy on my bookshelf and occasionally, nervously, holding it in my hands. I had some faint idea of the novel's gravity, psychological depth, and literary significance, which together added up to a conflict between the side of me that felt destined to read the book and the side that shuddered at the idea. I could draw an inept parallel between my inner conflict and that which drives the main character in this book, but I won't, because it would be stupid. Luckily, I was delivered from my dilemma by the idea of listening to the book on CD while commuting.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (or Dostoyevsky) knew a lot about inner conflict. Consider his history: a political radical in Russia's pre-Revolution days, reprieved from a death sentence at the last moment, pardoned after several years imprisoned in Siberia, then celebrated for a writing career in which the two sides of his character warred with each other: the rebel who was almost hanged for his activities, and the penitent mystic who polemicized against the very ideals he had once nearly died for. Right in the middle of that same conflict is the novel's central figure, Rodyon Romanovich Raskolnikov: an impoverished student in the far northern capital city of Saint Petersburg, who dares himself to murder another human being in order to prove whether or not he is like Napoleon—a man who can "speak a new word," a leader, a world-changer.

If I don't want this to be a tediously long-winded review, I will have to forgo the customary word-sketch of who's who and what happens. There are a lot of unforgettable characters in this book, some with big bright souls, others shriveled and dark. There are pages of agonizing suspense, gripping psychological drama, touching romance, shattering tragedy, and even now again a moment of macabre humor. There is a character who inspired the TV detective Columbo, and a strikingly strong and almost "modern" female character, and a saintly angelic female character, and a goofy sidekick who will steal everyone's heart. There is a whole family that would seem right at home in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, dramatizing the evils of alcoholism in a way that, seemingly beyond possibility, is both heartbreaking and ludicrous at the same time. There is a murder mystery in which who done it, and how, is the first thing you know; why he done it, you learn later; and what leads him to confess his crime, when he has a real chance of getting away with it, is the real crux.

Your world lit teacher will probably tell you that this book, first published in a serialized format in 1866, broke new ground by inventing the "third-person omniscient" narrator. He may also express embarrassment over a couple of casually antisemitic comments in the book (including a caricatured physical description that Dostoevsky assigns to "all Jews without exception"). Or he might just take it easy on you and let you read lighter stuff like Chekov and Pushkin, and leave this book for grad students and bookworms to discover on their own. None of these possibilities is really quite necessary. You're not going to notice anything novel about the book's point-of-view because you're used to that sort of thing; you're big enough and intelligent enough to recognize that no person or period in history was perfect, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be discussed and thought about in their own context and on their own terms; and, after all, this is really a surprisingly clear, readable, and powerful book that you won't have any trouble finishing once you've well begun it.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 16+

As the tale within admits, the title on the cover of this book is a contradiction. Gods, this present-day quest-myth tells us, do not grow robustly in American soil. The beliefs indigenous to this continent may have had more-or-less impersonal creators lurking behind the scenery, but folklore heroes and the nymphlike spirits of animals and plants sufficed for most day-to-day purposes. So when people started to arrive from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, the gods they brought with them had to get by in a pluralistic landscape, crowded with other transplanted deities, all jostling to nourish themselves on the meager faith of a dwindling number of believers. Inhospitable soil indeed!

And now it is the present day, and a new pantheon has at last begun to push out the old gods. Media, technology, and similar idols are on the way up as gods from ancient Egypt, Africa, India, and China come down. And as if that isn't happening fast enough on its own, a war is brewing between the old gods and the new. Stuck in the middle of it all, by virtue of his job as the Norse god Odin's personal assistant, is a gentle giant named Shadow. Hired fresh out of prison as he travels to his wife's funeral, Shadow grows from being a complete skeptic to playing a pivotal role in the fate of beings as old as they are strange. He makes friends with an ill-fated leprechaun, wagers his life on a game of checkers, solves a serial killer case that has been going on for over a century, encounters the walking dead, fools around with a shape-changing goddess, works for a spell in the oldest continually-operating independent mortuary in world history, teaches himself some really awesome coin tricks, and rises from the dead. And he goes through it all with a wonderful attitude of not being surprised by anything, because after the first thing he experiences in this story, nothing is impossible.

This is one of the most serious and mature-themed books I have seen under Neil Gaiman's authorship. And I only partly mean that in the sense of the "adult content advisory" which it most definitely deserves. There are some extremely graphic, even disturbing sex scenes in this book, of a nature in keeping with its overall theme of America as a melting pot of gods of all nationalities, shapes, sizes, and character-types, stirred up together in a crazy, numinous potpourri. But there are is also a lot of death and dismemberment, torture, slavery, decomposing bodies, arcs of arterial blood squirting all over the place, and other gruesome manifestations of fate, sacrifice, and polymythic conflict. There are wonderful fantasyscapes depicting dimensions too weird to imagine, mixed in among scenes of desperate normalcy in a small, sheltered Wisconsin town.

Partly because it is longer than most of Gaiman's books, and partly because his writing style does not sparkle with quite its usual consistency of endlessly effervescent wit, American Gods seems to sit heavier on one's hands, heart, and mind. But as a well-researched traveler's guide to the faiths imported to the U.S., combined with a brilliantly imaginative thriller about war games with cosmic stakes, the tone might be just about right.

Anansi Boys
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 14+

For my listening pleasure during my daily two-hour commute, I checked an audio CD of Anansi Boys out of the library. Great indeed was my pleasure in listening to British comedian Lenny Henry narrate this companion book to American Gods. I particularly noted the glee with which he impersonated its colorful cast of characters. He really knows his way around a West Indian dialect, making my time with this book somewhat like having a series of perfectly blended mojitos poured into my ears.

This lighthearted, tightly paced, frequently hilarious book bears a night-and-day contrast to the at times graphically nasty grimness of American Gods. Its main character, "Fat Charlie" Nancy, is a regular bloke, brought up by his Londoner mum since she split with his Florida-based father, whom Charles remembers mostly with embarrassment. Nevertheless, Fat Charlie goes back to Florida to bury the old man after he drops dead in the middle of a karaoke number. Among the vague memories stirred by the Caribbean ladies from his old neighborhood is the fact that Fat Charlie has a brother named Spider, and all he has to do if he wants to see him is talk to a spider about it. Charlie finds this almost as hard to believe as the notion that his late Dad was the ancient West African spider-god Anansi, but when he tries it (the spider-talking bit) back in his London flat, he discovers that his long-lost brother is very real. And very, very cool.

Spider is all the things Charlie likes to imagine himself to be but is not. Spider is good-looking, confident, handy with the girls. He has also inherited all the godlike powers in the family, power such as the ability to push people's minds and to bend the laws of space-time. But with these powers comes a number of not-so-nice divine attributes, such as capriciousness, selfishness, and indifference to the wellbeing of puny mortals. In a trice, Spider steals Fat Charlie's fiancée and goads his normally nice, easy-going brother into taking otherworldly steps to get rid of him.

By then, the balance of Fat Charlie's carefully ordinary life has been tipped and things begin to happen of themselves, out of control. His fiancée calls off the engagement and sails off with her bitter prune of a mother. A swindling money manager moves a peg up to kidnapping and murder, and tries to frame Fat Charlie for his crimes. A pretty cop flushes her career down the toilet to pursue her own investigation. And Fat Charlie realizes that he and Spider need each other, only when the latter is at the mercy of their family's most ancient enemy.

This book earns a big, bright "occult content advisory" with its cheerful depiction of ancient African gods and animistic West Indian rituals. Aside from that and a little blood, guts, and scary imagery, it is a surprisingly family-friendly novel (again, in marked contrast to American Gods), and full of laughs, surprises, romance, suspense, elemental storytelling, and for all its exotic subject matter, people and experiences that somehow seem so familiar that you have no trouble believing in it all. Perhaps that is why it won both the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the British Fantasy Society's August Derleth Award for best novel of 2006, ranking it among the best works of fantasy literature in our time. All I can say for sure, though, is that it was the most fun I'd had at the wheel of my car since I started listening to audiobooks. It made me look forward to driving to work each day!

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