Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl by Marcus Zusak

These have been published as a one volume trilogy with The Underdog as the first novel.  I think Marcus Zusak has a unique writing style that is soothing to read, even when his subject matters are hard.  The protagonist of all three stories is Cameron Wolfe, and the main plots center around his relationship with his brother Ruben.  Each book is better than the last.  I like thinking of reading it as watching Zusak improve in his story writing.  If you liked The Book Thief, you might like this.  The style is reminiscent, but The Book Thief deals with events of worldwide importance and historical significance, Under Dogs deals with seemingly insignificant events of a limited number of people.

In Fighting Ruben Wolfe, the brothers are recruited into an underground fight club.  At the same time, Cameron begins to see himself as different than Ruben.  In someways this makes him feel worse about his situation, but in other ways it helps him realize what he wants to become.  In this story, several of the chapters end with italicized conversations between the brothers in bed at night after they've turned the lights out.  I'm beginning to think that straightforward forshadowing is part of Zusak's signature style.  For example he writes, "He did, and soon it will alter the life of my brothe Rube.  It will put him in a boxing ring.  It will make a heap of girls notice him.  It'll make him successful."

Cameron begins writing poetry, or prose, but Zusak doesn't limit this style of writing to his character.  At the end of a paragraph he writes, "He's half a man, because it seems when a man can't work and when his wife and kids earn all the money, a man becomes half a mak.  It's just the way it is.  Hands grow  pale.  Heartbeat gets stale."  It's poetic, but not cheesy.

"The truth is, there's a lot to hate, and a lot to love.
The People.
The Situation."

Or, "The moment was cut open.  It fell in pieces all around me, and I had no idea what would happen next."

While a lot of the things the boys go through are sad and hard, there are funny, lighter moments.  Like walking their neighbor's dog Miffy.   "I promise you when we're walking that dog and see someone we know, we pull our hoods over our heads and look the other way.  I mean, there's only so much guys like us can get away with.  Walking a Pomeranian that goes by the name of Miffy is not one of them."  But of course they grow found of Miffy.

In all three stories, there is a lot of focus on the family dynamics.  Cameron is very mature in his ablity to see how his actions affect his family members.  "It's always bad when someone believes you when you know they shouldn't.  You feel like screaming at them, telling them to stop, so you can live with yourself a little easier.  But you don't.  You don't want to disappoint them."

This entire book can be read pretty quickly.  While it' actually 500 pages, there are lots of pages with poems, dreams or dialouge.  I liked all three books.  I especially felt like the resolution in the last one was well done and realistic.  Even if it is really sad on it's way to get there.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Amalee by Dar Williams

Yes I definetly should have read this before Lights, Camera, Amalee.  It develops Amalee's father's friends better, and would have helped me like them a bit more the second time around.  Still, I feel like having four of them is unneccessary.  One part I loved is when she recounts the story of when her mom left when she was an infant.  Her dad felt like she deserved a stable home to be raised in and considered adoption, but those friends assured him that he could do it, and they would fill in the gaps.  So that was sweet.

What I liked most about this book is the main character Amalee.  At 11, she is younger than most protagonists I read about coming of age.  But she doesn't reach some unrealistic maturity in the course of this book..  In fact she goes on to grow more in her second book, but she learns some important things about herself and her friends in this story.  I thought this aspect was thoughtfully written, and it felt familiar to how I remember feeling in 6th grade.

"I didn't mind what we were studying, even, but I was in middle school now, which meant less colors, less friendliness, and more meanness.  And there was another problem.  I was meaner, too.  Or I felt meaner."

The subtle examples Amalee gives about her new meanness center around not sticking up for other kids, going along with mean girls, and just not being brave enough to speak her mind.  I can really remember those couple of years when I felt that way.  Where the fear of drawing the negative attention to yourself is so real, that you let things slide that you really don't want to. 

"I wasn't sure if I'd make it through the day.  I decided to pretend I was a river rock, letting the river of whatever hard words I heard today wash over me."

I thought this was a good book.  I'd recommend it for 12 and up.  Probably mostly appeals to girls.
You can read it in an afternoon, it's only 180 pages, pretty large type.

Plus I think Dar Williams is cool and she did a good job turning her lyric writing skills into young adult novels.  Woohoo!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

OH Lois Lowry.  When I was little I loved her Anastasia series, in college I read Number the Stars, and in book club, The Giver.  What a range of successful books!  Of course she's written a million more. And, I loved this one too. 

The Willoughbys is a fun story about four "old fashioned" kids who are very aware of the archetype of orphans in literature.  The whole thing is written satirically, but its really light and fun!  I think it is hilarious, and my 10-year-old loved it too.

There are four Willoughby siblings.  The oldest is Tim, and he creates these games that his siblings play unwillingly. 
"The Willoughby children were seated on the front steps playing a complicated game to which only Tim knew the rules."  It involves having to move down a step for asking a question, being a dodo, or disagreeing.  Another game is this abstract awarding or deducting of points.  We have a running joke about that with our kids, so I thought it was especially funny.

Next are twin brothers who share the same name and have only one sweater between them.  When they mention to their mom that they might like another sweater, she says, "It's disgusting the way children today all want their own sweaters."  At the same time she is knitting a sweater for the cat.  And finally, sweet little Jane who gets the brunt of it all.  When her parents leave them with a nanny, they forget to mention they even have a 4th child.

I love this sentiment, "Let us not waste time with tears and useless expostulations," Nanny told them. "What if this were a story in a book with a well-worn maroon leather binding? What would good old-fashioned people do in this situation?"  Awesome.

I loved how Lois Lowry uses big words, but includes her own glossary in the back. I wish she mentioned it at the beginning because I bet kids won't look at it.  Here's an excerpt:
"MALEVOLENT means wanting to harm others or having an evil influence.  Even though if you glance quickly at the word, it may look like "male violent," this word has nothing to do with males.  It is actually pronounced mah-LEV-oh-lent.  Some females are very malevolent."

She also includes a little bibliography of "Books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children."

Read this, you'll like it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister

I liked Joy for Beginners for the same reasons I liked The School of Essential Ingredients.  The writing is pretty, the characters interesting and each chapter leaves you feeling like you've learned something about them and life in general. 

The premise this time is that Kate has gathered her friends for a victory party and to thank them for their support as she fought breast cancer.  "Kate looked at the women around her.  It was an incongruous group--it reminded Kate of a collection of beach rocks gathered over time."  As they encourage her to white water raft the Grand Canyon with her daughter, she challenges each of them to do one thing that they are afraid of,that she picks out.  At first it seemed a little cheesy that she would know what specific thing they need to do to grow or overcome.  BUT if you think about the hours they spent visiting with and supporting her, it feels real that she would have a sense of what they need.

I enjoyed several of the chapters.  I liked the way the characters intertwine, and you figure out how everyone is connected as you read their stories.  There are romantic ones, sad ones and funny ones.

There are sentences that ring so true with me, like a comment on pulling a book down from the bookshelf to re-read, "Open the pages and be caught in the memories of the person she had been when she first read it."  I know exactly how that feels.  It's hard for me to revise my feelings about a book when I read it again because the first impact is always the most powerful.

Or, "Adults need to have fun so children will want to grow up." I love that.  We want our kids to think that their life will just keep getting better, instead of showing them a bleak future in our unhappiness.

And in reference to returning home after sitting with Kate during her cancer treatments, "Afterward, Sara would go home and hold her children, as many as she could fit on her lap, as long as they would stay."  Even re-reading it makes me cry.

"Hadley entered the living room; Sara saw her and merely nodded, any personal need to apologize for the bedlam of her household long gone in the fog of her exhaustion."  I'm grateful that I've passed those years of tiny baby-no sleep craziness.

"Her daughter's voice came across the line, lit with excitement. 'I'm going to have a baby!' But you are a baby, Marion opened her mouth to say. I'm still holding you in my arms."

I also like Bauermeister's use of the English language: "Clarity broke like a plate on the floor."  It is such a perfect simile because the shocking thing is said over dinner in a restaurant, and you can almost image that someone hearing it might drop their piece of china.

And, "The little girl was talking happily, the flow of her words bright and shiny, like candy falling from a pinata."

I think the final chapter of Kate taking the rafting trip with her daughter was meant to be cumulative, to be the big finish that ties it all together.  But for me it was my least favorite chapter.  It felt too forced, too trite.  The other chapters felt more original and fresh.  And the swimming part was just too obvious and stereotypical. 

I can't decide which of these two Erica Bauermeister's books I liked the most, but if you like one, I'll bet you'll like the other.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Underdog by Marcus Zusak

So this is the first book Mr. Zusak wrote, and I think it's OK.   It's recently been released in the US with the next two books that resolve around the same brothers.

For me it really feels like a short story.  It follows an obvious literary format,  climax, denoument, etc. But overall it's not a super eventful action-packed story.

Cameron is a loser, he tells his story in a self-deprecating way.  He and his brother are bored, poor, and end up getting into trouble without even trying very hard.  He wants to do better, to be better.  He says at the beginning that, "A happening was looming.  It was out there somewhere beyond the regular enclosed life that I had been living."

I like his writing style, it feel efforless and smart, but it's definetly stream of conscious, so if that bugs you this will too.  Several chapters include dreams.  I think they are poetic and that teenagers would love to try to interpret them, but they didn't add a lot to the story for me.

"The pages and words are my world, spread out before your eyes and for your hands to touch."

I'm interested enough to read the next one, but it didn't amaze me.