Saturday, October 31, 2009


London Calling, by Edward Bloor, exemplifies what young adult literature ought to be (you heard me, chintzy vampire romance novels). It reminded me of Tangerine (also by Bloor) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I don't want to share too much about London Calling's plot and risk giving too much away. Thirteen-year-old Martin hates the prep school where he's one of the few, looked-down-upon scholarship students. The story begins with an unfortunate event at school, a little background in Martin's weighty family history (and family problems), and chronicles Martin's summer vacation as he hides out in his basement, depressed.

And there's time travel. Of course. Because every book I read has time travel in it these days. In this novel, the time travel takes on a slightly more spiritual edge.

The histories and fates of multiple families are intertwined. The mystery is exciting, but even more notable are Bloor's convincing relationships among family members, particularly fathers and sons (and I'll add a special note of appreciation for Martin's wonderfully understanding big sister). Bloor also portrays faith with sensitivity and gravity: most of the characters follow a religious tradition, but many are going through the motions as they pray, searching for healing and understanding. I was moved seeing Martin find purpose, belief, self-confidence, and the love of others.

If I have one very small criticism, it's that a certain comeuppance scene goes a bit too far, both in feeling too unforgiving and too unrealistic, which I feel is out of step with the overall tone of the conclusion. However, I can see how a young reader would absolutely love this particular scene. I look forward to checking out more of Bloor's books.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

and it was still hot.

Ickie and I went to see Where the Wild Things Are over the weekend. I've been looking forward to it for months, ever since seeing the preview and hearing that Spike Jonez was directing. (Jonez did Being John Malkovich, which has to be the weirdest premise for a movie ever, and that hilarious Happy Days Weezer video.)

For your information, this movie is not for young children. It will frighten them. Older children might even be bored with some of it. WtWTA is for those of us who grew up loving Maurice Sendak and who are mature enough to appreciate the unfiltered anger, ecstasy, and desperation of hurting kids.

Jonez has fleshed out Sendak's story to depict Max as an older child hungering for attention from his older sister (who coldly ignores him in one scene) and his sympathetic but overworked mom, played by Catherine Keener. I love Keener in everything I've seen her in, and even though she's only in a few scenes here, she's spectacular. Jonez is able to portray a tremendous amount about Max's home life in just a few introductory scenes: in my favorite, Max lies under his mom's desk and tells her a story while she works late. Jonez's attention to details is striking: Max lazily fingering the pantyhose seam on his mom's toes, her tired but tender expression, and the sound of her fingers clacking on the keyboard recording Max's sad, made-up story. She's a good mom, as this scene critically conveys, for in the next scene she's furious with him, worn out by his antics and neediness, and Max is out-of-control and extremely unlikable.

I haven't even gotten to the wild things yet! When Max first spies them by firelight, their conversation sounds like an overheard argument on a playground. The wild things are granted individual personalities (and amusingly commonplace names: Carol, Ira, Douglas, Alexander) absent in the book. They look just like Sendak's illustrations come to life--not at all like men in costume. I don't even know how they managed to create these faces that change so clearly from one emotion to the next. The wild things are in turn depressed, manic, irritatingly needy, achingly lonely, terribly afraid, and terrifying. The wild things are children utterly out of control, struggling with playground politics, trying to mimic adults, hugging and hurting each other in equal measure. They reflect Max's emotions as well as others from his real life. And the whole movie just looks AMAZING. The fort they build will blow you away! It is worth seeing on the big screen, and though some scenes are heartwarming, you have to wade through a lot of pain and darkness to get there.

Upon leaving the theater, I felt drunk on my own emotions: exhausted and enthralled at the same time, as though I hadn't felt anything so strongly since I was a child. It's a beautiful, beautiful movie, and it adds to my enjoyment of the book greatly, an experience I rarely find in a book-turned-movie.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Okay, I am officially a very enthusiastic fan of Connie Willis. Her novel, Doomsday Book, stunned me. It's 578 pages long, and Willis succeeds in stretching the suspense out over that many pages--agonizing, but in the best possible way.

Like To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday is based in the Oxford's "history" (time travel) department in the mid 21st century. Unlike TSNOTD, it is not a comedy. Doomsday's story line follows two protagonists: Kivrin, as she travels back to the 1300s, and Mr. Dunworthy, who remains in Oxford. Their experiences complement each other, both set at Christmastime, contrasting futuristic and medieval medical care in a pandemic. The secondary characters are well developed, and it was far too easy for me to become attached to them. One of the elements I enjoyed most was the role of religion in the lives of different characters in crisis. Some are superstitious, several are infuriatingly hypocritical, a few are unexpectedly inspiring, and one character's faith is genuinely moving.

Willis has such an imagination. I found her portrayal of life in the 1300s fascinating. I also had the urge to wash all my towels and sheets in scalding hot water by the time I finished. And I'm yearning to visit Oxford again--preferably in this century.

Monday, October 5, 2009

England Circa World War II

I've been transported to England in the 1940s often lately. My previous review, To Say Nothing of the Dog, had multiple scenes that took place around Coventry Cathedral during the Luftwaffe bombing. I just completed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Plus, Ickie and I are addicted to the BBC series Foyle's War.

Guernsey is a novel in letter format, set shortly after WWII. It chronicles the fictional friendships among author Juliet Ashton and the members of the literary society on Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands occupied during the war. Juliet and the islanders initially bond over their shared love of literature and then grow to know each other deeply. There are many stories of events during the occupation from multiple perspectives. Most of the letter writers are delightful characters, although at least one is extremely irritating, and we come to know the brightest star of the cast via secondhand stories. The novel does a spectacular job of conveying the a character's complex nature with a short, simple anecdote. There are a several enjoyable romances and one point in the book in which I cried noisily with tears streaming down my face. If you enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road (which I did), you may see a similarity here.

Foyle's War, set in a small town on the southern coast of England, is a series about a police detective during WWII. Each episode is more than a mystery, as Foyle often turns up government corruption and espionage related to the war effort. Honeysuckle Weeks (love the name!) and Anthony Howell (Roger of BBC's Wives and Daughters) are excellent in supporting roles, but Ickie and I especially love Michael Kitchen's understated performance as Chief Inspector Foyle. He is quintessentially British, conveying a range of thought and emotion with a stiff upper lip. The scenery is lovely, featuring white cliffs, small towns, period sets, Spitfires zooming over the countryside, and stately manors. Although many of the events and revelations are quite depressing, there's also subtle humor. Mysteries and WWII stories have been done again and again, but Foyle's War is uncommon.