Sunday, June 26, 2011

Week 26: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner

Alan Garner isn't terribly well-known right now, but he is one of the eminent names in British children's fantasy, and he is very well worth reading. He tends to be a little more difficult than, say, Lloyd Alexander or Susan Cooper, and would really appeal to a kid who loves epic fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien. His stories are always very grounded in some particular part of Britain and draw heavily on ancient folklore.

This story is about Susan and Colin, who come to visit Alderley Edge in Cheshire (a real place). Susan has a little trinket heirloom, and it draws them into a battle between the good wizard Cadellin and the evil Grimnir.

There is a sequel, the Moon of Gomrath, which is also excellent.

Week 26: The Long Winter

The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I went on a great trip this last week and read very little, but while I was at my friend's house I picked up her copy of The Long Winter. This has always been one of my favorite books of the series, because the incredible hardship and difficulty of the winter is so clear and vivid. It always makes me grateful for every single thing I've got. I always appreciate Laura's struggle to be cheerful and helpful instead of complaining; as the only truly able-bodied child of the family, it's very important that she help out as much as she possibly can.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Week 25: The White Witch

The White Witch, by Elizabeth Goudge

I feel an Elizabeth Goudge kick coming on again! This novel is set during the English Civil War, and tells the stories of several people on both sides whose lives are intertwined. There are Puritans, Cavaliers, spies, gypsies, children and secret Catholic priests, and of course excellent writing. Lovely.

Week 25: The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley

This was a hugely interesting book. Ridley's thesis is that despite centuries of pessimism and constant lamenting over the imminent collapse of society and/or the environment, optimism is the rational way to see the world. The reason for optimism is that ideas procreate, producing more and more new ideas all the time--and so our problems get solved, everyone gets wealthier, and the planet gets healthier too. Specialization and trade are the engines of growth, prosperity, and problem-solving.

Ridley takes on every dire prediction you've ever heard and argues that things are only getting better. He saves fossil fuels and global warming for last, so you have to read to the end. He is not denying that environmental problems exist and that we should solve them; he's only saying that they probably will get solved, but that telling everyone to eschew prosperity and new technology is not what will solve the problem. Instead, new ideas and technology will allow us to support more wealth without destroying the environment.

I thought this book was fascinating and would highly recommend it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Take a Chance: The Pedant and the Shuffly

The Pedant and the Shuffly, by John Bellairs

6: Book Seer Pick: Go to The Book Seer and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

I had just finished reading John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost, so I entered that title in hopes of finding a similarly fun Gothic writer, but all the Book Seer returned was a list of Bellairs titles. I've read all of them, except for The Pedant and the Shuffly, which I've always kind of wanted to read, so I got hold of that.

It's quite a short little oddball fairy-tale type story--the closest thing I can think of is James Thurber's The 13 Clocks. The evil wizard Snodrog the Pedant has a habit of collaring people who pass by his house, whereupon he uses his horrible logic to convince them they don't exist. They either disappear or become Flimsies, stained handkerchiefs forced to do his evil bidding. Then one day his designated victim brings a Shuffly along, and the fun begins.

I was a little disappointed in this suggestion from the Book Seer, since I was hoping for something that wasn't by the same author, but I'll try it again sometime. I think usually it comes up with more.

Week 24: In Search of Ireland's Heroes

In Search of Ireland's Heroes, by Carmel McCaffrey

This is a short, but dense, history of Ireland from 1167 to the present day. 1167 marks the beginning of the English invasion of Ireland, and this book is largely a history of the conflict between the English and the Irish. As the title implies, the story focuses especially on eminent persons in Irish history.

It's a good book, but I found it slow going because it's densely written. It gets easier once the 20th century starts, though. If I'd had access to McCaffrey's first volume of Irish history, I would have read it first--it's on my list now.

Week 24: The Face in the Frost

The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs

I've always been a big fan of John Bellairs, who is mostly famous for writing spooky children's books. He just has a great style. The Face in the Frost was his first novel, and it was aimed more at adults, but really you could give it to a kid who already likes his books. It's not much scarier than the others, and it's only a little longer.

This is the story of Prospero ("and not the one you're thinking of either") and his friend Roger Bacon (yes, that one), wizards who realize that a mysterious evil force is attacking Prospero. Who is behind the attacks, and why is it all happening? The two friends go on a journey to find out and stop their enemy from throwing the whole country into war and destruction.

This is a great example of Bellairs' quirky, hodge-podgey style and it's fun to read, so any fan will enjoy it. Although it sounds like the usual sword-and-sorcery kind of thing, it isn't at all--but it is considered a classic of fantasy literature. This book isn't very easy to find any more, though. I was lucky to find my copy--which does not look like this cover--at Dark Carnival in Berkeley years ago.

If you have a kid who likes scary books, and you don't want him reading awful YA horror yet, John Bellairs would be an excellent choice (William Sleator too). My theory is that a kid who has already developed a taste for Bellairs' erudite silliness will be pretty immune to the lure of trashy horror. Bellairs wrote three character series: Lewis Barnavelt starts off with The House With A Clock in its Walls, Johnny Dixon begins with The Curse of the Blue Figurine, and Anthony Monday finds The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Week 23: Little Princes

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, by Conor Grennan

Conor Grennan had a bunch of money saved up and wanted to take a trip around the world, and he decided to kick it off with a couple of months volunteering in Nepal at an orphanage. Soon enough, he'd decided to go back and spend more time there. Then he realized that most of the kids at the orphanage weren't orphans at all; their parents had paid to have them taken out of their war-torn, dangerous homes and sent to school, but instead they'd been abandoned. And then he decided to start a children's home himself and try to rescue a few of the many Nepalese children living in slavery, and even to reunite some of the children with their parents.

I'm a bit worried that this book is going to suffer from the fallout around Greg Mortenson, the Three Cups of Tea guy. It's a similar story--guy runs into needy children almost by chance and ends up dedicating his life to them, and you can donate--and the timing is unfortunate. But I hope this book will not end up under a cloud of suspicion in the same way, just because it was published at the wrong time. Grennan writes this story himself, and he comes off as more real than Mortenson did; he's very honest about his failings and his original motives for volunteering at an orphanage (to impress girls, and to make it look less selfish to spend a year traveling).

Grennan describes a situation that I didn't know anything about. Nepal has been torn apart by civil war over the past decade; it was the Maoist rebels against the royal family (there are still Maoists?!). In areas controlled by the rebels, the Maoist army was forcing men from every family to join up, and once they ran out of men, they starting taking children. Tiny boys were taken from their families and raised to become soldiers and servants. Families desperate to save their children wound up selling everything they had for money to pay con men who promised to take their sons to safety in Kathmandu. The boys would be safe, they would go to school, they would be able to eat. But in reality, the children were either abandoned entirely or forced into slavery, and they were too afraid to tell anyone that they weren't orphans. The lucky ones ended up in orphanages; many still live in slavery.

So it was really neat to read about how the author got to know all the kids and then managed to find several of their families. It's a mostly heartbreaking story, but there's a lot of hope too. I highly recommend this book.

Week 23: A Natural History of Latin

A Natural History of Latin, by Tore Janson

Tore Janson gives a nice digestible history of the Latin language, from its pre-Roman origins up through the present day. It's interesting that the book is translated from the Swedish--it must be a lot of work to translate a book about language like that, since all the examples have to be re-done.

The only thing I objected to with Janson's writing is his habit of telling us all about his moral disapproval of Roman practices. He'll describe something like the massacre of a million Gauls, and--unsure that we will realize that it's a bad thing to massacre Gauls--then he'll point out that it's genocide and he doesn't approve of it. He takes great pains to make sure we know. It's irritating.

Aside from that, though, it was a good short history of the Latin language, and if you want to understand why Latin is still useful even today, it's a good title to read.