December 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Books for Winter Break

December means holidays and breaks from school and, in between all the snow sports and shopping (and movies and dates and everything else), there is plenty of time to read what you want and not what some teacher says is good for you. (Are there worse words in the English language?) Here, then, are some books I recommend for enjoyable winter break reading.

In Nelson George’s City Kid: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success, the music writer, novelist and film director (also friend of Spike Lee, Russell Simmons and a ton of other notables in the arts field) recounts his life growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A rocky childhood with an absent father is only the beginning though; George writes about loving Captain America, falling hard for Gatsby and Hemingway’s Nick Adams and being not so impressed with Faulkner and Wolfe (I’m totally with him there). As much as he dreamed of becoming a writer (and traveled between home, school and work diligently filling up notebooks with thoughts and stories), it was music that drew him in, however, and music that he ultimately wrote about. He does not see a difference between the two fields, explaining early on that “whenever I hear the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Warning” with its economical storytelling and matter-of-fact violence, I think of Hemingway.” It’s this ability to see across pop culture and society that has served George so well in his career and what makes his book so immensely readable to anyone interested in the writing life.

From his recollections of meeting with Spike Lee (and being an early investor in She’s Gotta Have It) to bittersweet moments with his struggling sister (whose story was presented in his HBO film Life Support), George uncovers both the famous and the unknown as he wanders through a life marked by several highs and lows, but always grounded in devotion to the written word and good music. He is, quite simply, an American success story, and City Kid is the record of that journey. Even though the book was published for adults, any older teen with hopes to be a writer or part of the music industry will find a lot to think about in the careful way George relates his career progression. His fearlessness when it comes to writing about his family is also to be lauded, especially the contentious relationship he shares with his father. But more than all of that, Nelson George is a good writer and what he writes makes for some very thoughtful reading. He worked his butt off (exemplifying Quincy Jones’ “ass power” example) and he achieved his dream. It’s a life worth reading about, and he is a writer to follow.

A very different but also riveting piece of nonfiction is Confessions on Life, Death and God, the latest entry in Frank Warren’s improbably successful PostSecret series. Drawn from an exhibition on faith at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, this new collection includes frank confessions on death, home, God, and prayer (and even zombies). As fans of the series are all too aware, Warren always pulls together a remarkable blend of serious and comical from the thousands of postcards sent his way. The artwork on the cards is as impressive as their messages, and often the combination of the two is a surprising shock. While we are largely over the voyeuristic allure of the PostSecret project, it never fails to deliver and this outing is no different. From “I don’t believe in God but I’m pretty sure the devil gave me cancer” to “Just because I don’t believe in religion doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in faith,” there are a lot of points to ponder. Teens in particular will be receptive to the barely raised hopes (“I wish I could be a lesbian and still go to heaven” pretty much broke my heart) and far too many fears (“I had my dream wedding with the wrong person”). All the questions that live in our hearts are alive and well in the PostSecret project, validating what we barely acknowledge and can hardly believe:

“I still wear your shirt.”

“I’ve just gotta save myself and then I’m yours.”

“Please don’t kill yourself tonight.”

“I’m more scared to believe in God then not to.”

They’re words thrown out to the universe hoping for someone to hear. Read them and maybe you’ll find your own answers, or at the very least, assurance that finally, you are not alone. When you’re fifteen (or fourteen or sixteen), that can make all the difference, and I hope those readers are the ones who find their way to the PostSecret world. (And yes, there is some discussion of sex on these notes, so be aware when purchasing.)

Now onto fiction, where Twenty Miles by Cara Hedley is one of those incredibly rare stories actually about women and sports. It’s a not a “girl loves a ballplayer” book but a “girl who plays ice hockey (yeah!) at the collegiate level” novel. It’s about joining a team of people who are very good at what they do, and even more so incredibly, almost maniacally, committed to it. It’s also about all the crazy things that happen when you are part of a sports team: the attitudes, the competition, the jokes and occasionally the evenings of debauchery. More than anything though, Twenty Miles is about being a serious jock, something I never thought I was going to find in a book about teenage girls, and I am so happy about it now that I can hardly stand it.

What’s especially great here is Isabel, a Winnipeg University freshman who is invited to tryout for the Scarlets. Isabel’s father was a minor hockey legend who died impossibly young. She skates like him, handles the puck like him, and for her grandmother who raised her, she has always lived up to his legacy. At Winnipeg, Isabel plays with other girls for the first time in her life (there were no girls' teams in her hometown) and finds herself overwhelmed at times by the sheer force of their collective natures. Hedley, who played college hockey herself, clearly has the locker room banter nailed and revels in showing the girls with their rowdy natures running unchecked. Through her teammates, Isabel views a huge love of hockey that she is not sure she shares, and so she begins to question her commitment to the sport that was thrust upon her at such a young age. The issue of whether she should keep playing sends her home to the place where her father’s ghost still lives. Embracing who he really was, and who she is, becomes the challenge for Isabel, and lifts Twenty Miles into the realm of solid coming-of-age drama, yet with a setting and plot unlike any other.

This book is strong, it’s powerful, and it celebrates love of game, friends, family and cute classmates. The girls are incredibly bold and utterly fearless, and so is Hedley. She pointedly drops a nice little GBLT subplot into the mix when two members of the team are discovered to have fallen for each other, and loudly and unabashedly celebrated in a very sweet and funny moment. Ultimately, Twenty Miles is all about the good in the world of sport and college, and is an excellent title for all the girls who play, love and laugh as hard as they possibly can.

When Mattox Roesch’s Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same came across my desk, I hesitated long and hard before reading it. Having lived in Alaska for a long time, and worked with many people from the village, I was reticent to see what a Caucasian author might have to say about Native Alaskan life. There were just so many ways Roesch, who lives in Unalakleet where the novel is set, could get this novel wrong. I was afraid I would be witness to the literary equivalent of a train wreck; I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to have gotten that whole worry wrong.

Out of sheer boredom, Los Angeles teen Cesar has fallen in with a gang, and seems destined to follow his older brother into a life of murder and prison. Wary of losing another child, and tired of her troubled marriage, his mother decides it is time to go home, and she and Cesar travel to rural Alaska. Unalakleet is an Eskimo village -- Inupiat and Yupik, of less than 800 people, that is located about 150 miles from Nome on the northwest coast. You get there by flying a small plane, the only roads all go to nowhere, and to say that life is quiet would be an understatement. Cesar quickly finds himself under the wing of his cousin “Go-Boy,” a college dropout who is convinced he is destined for great things. Unsure of how to fit in, or even if he wants to, Cesar clings to Go-Boy and his wild ideas with ever-increasing fervor. In succeeding chapters he thinks his cousin will first just occupy his time, then help him get back to L.A., then save him, and then he discovers that none of that is true, and really, it is Go-Boy who desperately needs Cesar. Just how much he wants to be part of village life though, and how much of a hero he can be, are the sorts of things that Cesar must ponder. At the same time he slowly falls hard for Go-Boy's stepsister, witnesses a horrific and desperately sad crime, and comes to term with his own terrible criminal history. If you can never home again then Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same suggests that you can still find your place in the home that was always within you. The big question, though, is whether Cesar will be an Alaskan who needs the village or hates it, and if he can stay sane as far away from the world as most readers can imagine.

So what does Roesch get right here? Pretty much everything about rural Alaska. He manages to reveal all the despair and ugliness of village life including the ravages of alcoholism, depression and suicide, which continue to be great trials for Alaska Natives. But he does not make Unalakleet the latest stand-in for the sad Native story, because there it is, still beautiful and funny, and an “Our Town on the tundra” story that is faithful in every way to small town America. He gives readers many teen characters trying to find their way, confused about the future, alternately hopeful and hopeless, and torn between biding their time and taking a great leap of faith. They will be identifiable to anyone who has ever wondered if home is enough, while equally being terrified that everything else is far too much. Cesar is a character that both stuns and impresses; as he recounts his capacity for cruelty while in L.A., readers might very well hold their breath, but the way he takes care of his cousin and weighs the impact of doing the right thing will convince anyone how much we all have the capacity to change in the right environment. All in all, this coming-of-age story, and that is most certainly what it is, is epic in scope and thoughtfulness. As an Alaskan, I was deeply grateful, and as a reader, deeply impressed. This is the real deal, and I highly recommend it to high school aged readers and older.

Joceyln Brown’s The Mitochondrial Curiosities of Marcels 1-19 sports a title you’ll not soon forget, and a protagonist who challenges your patience while easily winning your affection. Fourteen-year-old Dree is desperate to bag school and dedicate her life to her crafts. She managed to clandestinely drop out for a few weeks and get a job to save money for the Toronto Renegade Craft Fair, but was caught and forced back to the drudgery of being dutiful daughter to her single, disappointed mother, and sibling to younger (and perfect) Paige. Her father, Leonard, promised Dree that he was saving money for her dream, and if she would hold on until her fifteenth birthday, the account would be hers and she could head off to the big city crafty goodness. The problem is that as the story opens, Leonard has died before the birthday (right before) and Dree is left with no father, a very unhelpful stepmother, and no way to go to the Fair which is pretty much the only thing she has been living for.

So, convinced her father has left clues to find the money (he was fond of treasure hunts), Dree embarks on a series of investigations to find out just where her fund could be. Along the way she steals from her sister, uncovers odd coincidences pointing to the time her parents were both employed at a psychiatric hospital, and meets new friend Jessie, who is both an awesome crafter and has her own ties to the hospital as well. She also makes sock creatures named Marcel (nineteen of them), maintains a crafting blog (with posts at the end of each chapter), and attempts to finish a science project on mitochondria with Paige so she can pass biology. There is a perusal through past issues of the local newspaper, visits with her grandmother (who also works at that hospital), two clandestine meetings in a craft class at the very same hospital, and a villain of epic proportions. Finally, she develops the kind of girl crush on Jessie that is reminiscent of boarding school novels, has a tense moment before a classroom of teenagers wherein love, sex and cellular function is discussed, and there are two fires – one historic and one at Dree’s feet. In the end there is finally a successful treasure hunt and a revelation, as there should be in any fine coming-of-age story. How the reader gets to that point – in only 141 pages – is a literary ride of such chaotic honesty that it could only happen in the hands of a teenager created by a very talented writer who gets that sometimes you just have to hold on tight as events carry you on, and you always have to take a chance if you want to change your life.

Major points to Brown for such a wildly inventive title that manages to be fantastic without straying into the realm of fantasy. No elves, fairies or vampires, but still lots of wild action, strong emotion and powerful hopes. The Mitochondrial Curiosities of Marcels 1-19 is a book any teen can believe in, and Dree is a protagonist who falls apart, but still holds it together and remains, until the end, undefeated.

Now, for the younger set, the go-to book for every middle school reader this winter should be Laurel Snyder’s Any Which Wall. It has been compared favorably to Edward Eager as a modern take on the “magic comes to group of kids” formula, and I certainly see the relationship. But I read Wall more as Penderwicks plus magic, meaning it is a 21st century novel in attitude (these kids are not pushovers), but has a nice throwback to an older time when kids weren’t bogged down with too many worries or too much drama. (And honestly, I wonder half the time if authors don’t just invent that drama to make it seem like life is ever so much more complicated these days than it used to be. Could everyone just step back and stop insisting they invented drama for five minutes? Thank you.)

With Any Which Wall, you have two sets of siblings thrown together in a long hot summer who discover a wall that will take you wherever you want to go. What follows are some wishes which include pirates and castles, a famous magician, a desperate dog and a very mean man. Sneakers are left behind, treasure is found and put back, and a rescue is undertaken. There is also a wonderful day in New York City and a revelation or two about what it means to be a decent person, something that I think is woefully overlooked by all of us in both daily and literary life. A cool librarian is met, a fountain is invaded, and the right decisions are made. Sneakers are not found but sandals will do. And there is lots of good eating on big wide front porches (which is really the point of summer, I think).

I hesitate to say Any Which Wall is good clean fun, because that makes so many people roll their eyes as if to suggest that surely hidden messages about appropriate conduct must be in there somewhere, but no worries here, folks – Snyder really has just written a good fun novel about some smart kids who get handed a great big gift by the universe and set out enjoying the ever-loving heck out of it. I hope that Henry, Emma, Susan and Roy return for further adventures (with or without the wall) and perhaps bring another friend or two along (maybe making for a more of a multicultural adventure, because then it would be a perfect). With or without a debt owed to Mr. Eager, Ms. Snyder proudly stands on her own here, and has created a truly blissful read. It might just help a kid survive the winter – and plot their own summertime fun.

Younger readers also will find Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix by R. L. LaFevers an irresistible treat, especially if they are fans of the fantastic. Ten-year-old Nate is the apparent orphan (his parents are missing) of two acclaimed cartographers. After years of being cared for by a nanny of the sadly non-Mary Poppinish sort, his parents are declared formally lost, and he is subsequently deposited on the country doorstep of a long-lost relative who shares her home with – wait for it – a talking dodo.

Yeah, LaFevers pretty much had me there.

From Cousin Phil, Nate learns all about the illustrious history of the Fludd family, which includes a long line of beastologists who study and protect creatures long thought dead (or mythical). He barely has time to cool his heels before he is whisked off on an expedition concerning the birth of a new phoenix. There is a wild plane ride to include wing walking, more than one gremlin, a landing in the desert which means a camel ride, an oasis and a deal struck with Bedouins, and the discovery of a sinister individual who has designs on Fludd history. Nate is both curious and cautious, hopeful that his life has taken a positive turn, but also longing for the staid certainty of his dull nanny. There’s no Oliver Twist here, or even Harry Potter, but rather an original blend of fantastic and fun that is far more about the boy than the magic. Pair Nathaniel Fludd with Any Which Wall for the 8-to-12-year-old in your life and call it done; satisfaction is guaranteed.

Finally, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the mother of all classics, and for good reason. Illustrator Oleg Lipchenko has spent years on a new oversized edition from Tundra Books, and this one is well worth the wait. With a mix of black and white and sepia, he gives Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece an antique feel that finds something startling on each and every page. In a world populated by inquisitive animals and archly disturbed humans, Lipchenko leaves his mark on Wonderland with a unique but satisfying vision. I forgot all about blonde girls in blue dresses while paging through this one, and for that alone, the illustrator has my undying gratitude. Old-school in the best sense of the word, Tundra clearly knows a master when they see one. When all else fails for holiday gift giving, you can't go wrong with Alice, the rabbit and the crazy Red Queen. She’s a classic for a reason, and with this new edition, Lipchenko reminds us that Alice isn’t done impressing us, not by a long shot.

Colleen Mondor can be found regularly blogging on literary matters at her site, Chasing Ray, and also invites readers to check out the group site full of book recommendations for teenage boys, Guys Lit Wire.