August 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Summer Trips

One of the best things about the summer is taking a trip somewhere -- anywhere -- and seeing a little bit more of the world. When I was a kid we never left the state but we did get to some cool parts of it. Trips are not always taken just to alleviate summer boredom however, and there are several recent road (and boat and train) trip titles that I've enjoyed. If you can't get away from home, at the very least you can hang out in the lawn chair with a tall glass of sweet tea, some snacks and read about someone who does.

The first major road trip in history was taken in 1908 when several teams vied to actually drive around the world from New York to Paris. As recounted by Gary Blackwood in The Great Race this absolutely insane contest was full of so many thrills, spills and near-death experiences that it makes any 21st century backseat whining seem quite inexcusable in comparison. Blackwood includes extended profiles of the drivers, the cars and the designers and a ton of pictures. It's the sort of nonfiction that covers not only the event itself but all the little often-overlooked pieces that affected the people involved. And these people were equal parts crazy, arrogant and brave -- some of them a lot crazier than others.

One of the things I really liked about The Great Race is how Blackwood does of lifts this story beyond the encyclopedia level. He gives us Germans, Italians and Americans, plus a team-jumping Norwegian explorer. The stress is monumental, the fighting (between teams, team members and with race watchers) continuous and the wear and tear on the vehicles and men, relentless. The real hero of the race was the American George Schuster, who basically took his car apart and put it back together again on more than one occasion as they drove across America, were shipped up to Alaska, returned from Alaska (the race promoters had neglected to note that there were no roads across the state), shipped over to Japan via boat and then on to drive across Russia, through Germany and finally to Paris. Drivers came and went, teams fell apart and reformed, but Schuster just kept turning those wrenches and making his car run. He should be the hero of mechanics everywhere and this book is a great choice for gear heads who might not be inclined toward fiction.

Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet received a lot of attention from the major media outlets when it was released a couple of months ago. The book's unique design -- it incorporates illustrations that the main character draws throughout the book -- and the premise of a "twelve-year-old genius cartographer" who hops a train to travel cross country and receive a prize from the Smithsonian, made it the sort of literary darling that reviewers seem to favor. I see Spivet as a YA title though, thinking a young protagonist on an epic trip would appeal just as much, if not more, to teen readers than adults. But what I found was a very unusual book -- a book that honestly defies all classification -- yet one that seems written more for teens than anyone else. I imagine the publishers thought adults would enjoy the kitschy oddness of Larsen's creation (and its inherent hipster sensibility) but it is teens who will embrace it and find in T.S. Spivet a hero on multiple levels.

When we first meet T.S., he is mapping his sister shucking corn. It is immediately clear that he sees maps less as a conventional tool of travel and more a way to peer inside a limitless number of actions and thoughts. Maps can show us not only where we are going but where we are from, how we live and what we hope to be. T.S. sees everything in maps, which is a touchy subject with his rancher father and scientist mother. Quite frankly they don't know what to do with this odd child, especially in comparison to their other "normal" children. T.S. perseveres in his own discoveries however and has, through the assistance of a scientist friend of his mother's, even contributed illustrations to the Smithsonian. What propels the action from the opening pages is contact from the institution where T.S. is informed he has won a prestigious award. No one realizes how young he is and for no good reason (other than being a kid) he decides not to tell them. In fact, T.S. goes one step further and chooses to travel back east on his own, certain he will be in trouble if his parents find out what he has been doing with his art. While this behavior seems odd at first it becomes clear that the award is not really what T.S. is thinking about; his younger brother Layton died recently in a shooting accident when he and T.S. were alone. Worries over Layton and his part in the tragedy are slowly overwhelming T.S.; running away thus seems like the logical thing to do.

Rather than just have the boy jump a train and see America, Larsen tosses a lot more into the plot along the way. T.S. grabs a notebook off his mother's desk on the way out the door and discovers she has been writing a novel based on a Spivet family ancestor: the young woman who first came west and was a notable scientist way ahead of her time. Larsen reproduces these sections of the notebook, so readers quickly find themselves immersed in the life of Elizabeth Spivet and a childhood full of tragedy and naturalist wonders. Then, when the notebook ends, T.S. finds himself in great peril in Chicago and nearly dies while changing trains. As if that drama isn't enough (and he is in fact grievously injured in his escape), once he arrives in D.C., T.S. finds himself a pawn in bureaucratic games and is rescued by a secret society that combines scientific know-how, a certain element of magic and an encyclopedic knowledge of the city's underground tunnels to grab him from the clutches of greedy politicians and civil servants. At this point T.S. is no longer a prodigy deftly handling a great artistic talent but a young boy who desperately wants his family and the fastest possible trip home to Montana. Someone does come to the rescue -- the best person to tie up the lingering issues surrounding Layton's death -- and T.S. is back to being a quirky but confident boy again.

There will be a lot of discussion I'm sure about whether or not The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is just a bit too cute for its own good and if T.S. is too smart to believe. While I would certainly agree that T.S. is an exceptional child. The further you progress in the story the more clearly he becomes a typical twelve-year-old with an atypical ability at mapmaking. His response to his brother's death and his parents' relationship is spot-on and his interactions with his father in particular would be at home in any coming-of-age novel. While the book does start slow there is a reason for this pace, as T.S. is a careful child who simply does not move quickly. Once he takes to the road however the pace picks up and the fusion with Elizabeth's story really zips the plot along. By the end, at the Smithsonian, T.S. loses all control and is forced into survival mode as the adults around him plot and spin in ways that mean precious little to his well being. The fact that T.S. realizes this -- that he sees the moral failings of the adults while also recognizing the value of his family -- is a great moment in particular for young readers. If there's one thing teenagers know, it's that adults can sometimes screw up -- big time. They will appreciate the maps, the journey, the mysterious Megatherium Club and everything else but it is T.S. seeing how he is a better person than many of the adults that makes this title an excellent choice for any teenager who's tired of being told to respect their elders, no matter how stupid they are.

For those readers who question the viability of T.S.'s maps, I strongly urge you to check out The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography by Katharine Harmon. This collection of 350 "map-related artistic visions" first appealed to me purely for aesthetic reasons but even a quick survey of its contents is enough to impress anyone the slightest bit interested in creative cartography. Reif Larsen was clearly onto something with T.S. Spivet's talent as there are dozens of artists in this book with the same predilection. Harmon shows in both her selections and the essays of art historian Gayle Clemans, maps can indeed reveal far more than location. These artists are, quite simply, pushing the envelope of what cartography is and can be.

Joyce Korloff uses maps to "examine our relationships with history" with a particularly prescient series called "Boys' Art." These mixed media mash-ups use maps of conquest and images of soldiers and are based on the traditional fascination boys have with war. As Clemans explains, Korloff is not making assertions about boys and conflict but she does make you think about the violence of human history and its sometimes appealing nature. Abby Leigh is clearly a kindred spirit of Larsen's as her drawings, "My Personal Atlas" include aspects of the nature over lines of latitude and longitude, charting her "interest in the natural world and its mysteries…" Bryan Maycock takes existing historic maps and layers them with elements of his personal genealogy to show where his ancestors lived and then imagines what their daily lives might have been like. This blending of general and individual information in a graphic manner is a way to make historic maps more literal and increase their impact to modern viewers who will likely wonder what street-level life was like for their great grandparents. (This is exactly what I immediately thought.)

There are so many different appealing things about what Harmon has collected, from Yukinori Yanagi's fieldwork in Alcatraz, Josh Dorman's depictions of the inner life he seeks out ("As if I am walking through nature with a magnifying glass and a telescope,") to Abigail Reynolds' three-dimensional "Mount Fear, East London: Police Statistics for Violent Crimes" which depicts the neighborhoods of London through cardboard and felt "mountains"; the taller they are, the more statistically dangerous. This is an undeniable illustration of urban crime that very nearly staggers you with its simple message. If you live on the taller neighborhoods, something bad will probably happen.

Jennifer E. Smith continues to cement her position as a first rate author of contemporary teen fiction with You Are Here. This well-written road novel follows the adventures of Emma and Peter as they head south from New York State looking for answers along the way. The story opens with Emma learning she had a twin brother who died a few days after their birth. Deeply disturbed by her family's decision to keep this from her, she steals her older brother's car and heads for her childhood home in North Carolina where Thomas must be buried. Meanwhile next-door neighbor Peter finds himself facing ever increasing confrontations with his father over where he should go to college. Longing to leave his small town for something other, Peter also feels he does not fit into his family and desperately wishes he knew about his mother, who died the day he was born. When Emma breaks down at a rest stop, Peter is the only one she can think of to call, and he readily comes to the rescue. Together they embark on their dual searches to discover what they've been missing all of their lives.

Both Emma and Peter are fully realized teens and while some misunderstandings do crop up, they are more action-oriented, sort-things-out characters than most. (In other words, no endless chapters of pointless dramatics and whining.) Smith wrote the story in alternating points of view which makes the novel an excellent choice for male or female readers (which unfortunately might be lost on some boys due to the highly girl-appeal cover.) These are kids who are working things out by actively considering their concerns; Peter realizes at one point while driving that "a small part of him also knew that the reason he'd never ventured anywhere was because of the worry that the reality of the world wouldn't match up to his dreams." Emma likewise turns an analytical eye on herself, considering that "…it was okay for poets to be quirky. Professors are supposed to be absentminded, and geniuses are notorious loners. But Emma wasn't any of these things, and still she found herself easily distracted, prone to daydreaming and wandering, with a habit of zoning out when anyone attempted to explain things to her…She wasn't exactly normal but she wasn't exactly abnormal enough either."

What you have in You Are Here are two relatively typical teens who are each at a crossroads due to family secrets. They've got issues but as much as those problems drive them to act, they do not overcome a plot that includes a stray dog, Civil War battlefields and one botched attempt at a kiss. There are many introspective moments but far more decent, determined conversations where things are actually talked out and conclusions are found. And through it all, Emma and Peter keep driving south, looking for answers where she came from and where he has never been. The ending is wonderful and yet again, Smith proves she is a writer not to be missed.

Switching gears to a slower pace, in Anila's Journey, Mary Finn brings readers back to late 18th century India and the life of a young artist and apparent orphan trying to make her way in the world. Anila's mother has recently died. Her father, employed by the East India Company, is long missing and the people who have her taken in are moving to Madras. She chooses to stay behind in Calcutta, apply for a position as a draughtsman and search for news of her father. The job entails a boat trip up the Ganges River in search of an undiscovered bird. Anila's task will be to draw the nature they come across, specifically the birds. It is a trip that will take her past her mother's home village and hopefully near the extended family she has never met. Newly independent, Anila embarks on her journey with high hopes of self-discovery and of course has many amazing experiences along the way.

The history here is fascinating and well told; readers will easily find themselves immersed in Anila's world as the plot shifts back and forth between her early childhood with both parents and her current life alone. We learn about the relationship between the Indian woman and Irishman, why he left and the difficult decision her mother was faced with when he did not return. Anila was convinced something happened to him -- that he must have tried to come back -- but her mother's heart was broken. Her new life, as mistress to a wealthy man, found her slowly losing pieces of herself until she was gone forever. Anila, ever resilient, carried on although her view of the world became jaded. Her hopes are pinned on finding her father and discovering how her world came apart. The trip is a means to that end and also to finding a way for her to rely upon herself as opposed to the kindness of others.

Anila's Journey is a very quiet book and except for a few startling moments of slight violence or accidental excitement, it moves at the leisurely pace of a boat trip. This is truly a coming-of-age story as Anila's whole life is revealed to readers and they can see her steady transformation to young adult. Rather than forcing circumstances upon a character, Finn does a solid job of showing how we grow up and why. It's very realistic, sweet and yet not cloying and ultimately has an ending that is a kindness to both Anila and those who travel with her. I would recommend it to younger readers if not for a sexual assault that while not overly harsh, still keeps this one firmly for the teenage crowd.

Finally, Clear Heart is a realistic, if somewhat frenzied, look at the lives of hard working men in the California construction business. Anchored by two characters, Wally the contractor and Abe, the teenager he employs and befriends, it includes numerous secondary characters all of whom revolve around a plot based on building houses in a business climate that does not always reward honesty. When Wally finds himself teetering on the edge of bankruptcy after a client turns out to be a liar and a cheat (and an appallingly bad businessman), it is only through the good will he has engendered over the years with the people who work with him that he has a shot at saving everything he loves. Abe, swinging a hammer for the first time in his life, becomes a student of male behavior in the midst of all this drama, the new kid who is at first the victim of harmless pranks but soon graduates to dedicated apprentice and valued crewmember. Abe sees the kind of decent man Wally is and finds a great deal of value in his life and the lives of those who are part of his world. In the end, author Joe Cottonwood succeeds on multiple levels with the novel, from exploring the nature of responsible relationships, both romantic and friendly, to revealing the high value and reward of an honest day's work. There is also, at a very critical juncture, a road trip.

The road trip is the kind of frenzied last minute rescue that brings the book to its soaring conclusion and wraps up multiple relationships. Abe and "FrogGirl," a second apprentice (the name is quirky at first but becomes very significant), set off in a temperamental vehicle to transport a large bell from the east coast to the west. Nothing works out the way it should and Abe ends up questioning love. It's funny, very tender, and enormously, tremendously human. In fact, Clear Heart just might be one of the most human books I've read in a long time.

Clear Heart was written for adults but Abe and FrogGirl are key to the story and both of them are transformed in significant ways. There is no mystery here, just a dozen small moments of hard work and deep thoughts and why both are important. There’s some sex of the real and raw nature (as in actually doing it as opposed to just talking about it) so older teens only on this one but for the right kid -- for the one who wants to know what to do with their life but isn’t sure how to work that out -- this book could very well be transformative. And if the kid likes to build things, well then, it’s perfect.

Cool Read: There are history books and there are encyclopedias and then there are books like Take Me Back by DK books which bring readers a visual slice of human history that is both engrossing and casual. Written with the help of several contributors, Take Me Back begins at the very beginning with a "Hunter-Gatherer Theme Park" and then continues forward criss-crossing the world and covering every interesting story to be found along the way. There are some things most teen readers will recognize: the major wars, social movements and some bows to pop culture, but The Hundred Years War followed by a comic strip on the Black Death and then a look at the establishment of Greater Zimbabwe by the 12th century Shona people? This is history in real time, with real observations of concurrent events on the six major continents. The authors talk about religion, famine, despair and defiance. They profile Captain Cook, Josef Stalin and the Khmer Empire. It's skimming history, two pages at a time, but there is plenty of opportunity to grab a subject and run with it elsewhere. If you want to know what the scoop was in any given period, then Take Me Back is your ticket through time. Gorgeously illustrated in a contemporary punchy style that changes media with the flip of a page, it's a marvelous way to learn. If you're too cool for class then give this one a shot--it's well worth the ride.

Colleen Mondor can be found at her site discussing all kinds of books and bookish thoughts or moderating at where books for teen boys are recommended five days a week.