Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

After his family is killed by a mysterious assassin, a toddler wanders into a graveyard, where he is adopted by a ghost couple named Owens, and formally given the Right of the Graveyard by all, which means he can fade from view, walk through walls, and so on. Under the tutelage of the mysterious “neither living nor dead” Silas, the young Nobody Owens, as he is called, sees the underworld of goblins, werewolves, and macabre dances, as well as the more prosaic world of school bullies and money-grubbing adults. Eventually, however, he grows old enough to seek vengeance upon the man Jack who killed his family, and no one, not even Silas, can dissuade him.

This 2009 Newbery winner is an amazingly inventive riff on Kipling’s The Jungle Books, not only in its overarching theme of the orphan brought up among powerful non-humans but including the scenes of the buried treasure that brings death, the mindless hooting greedy apes (here cast as goblins) who have pretenses to greatness, and so on. But you don't need to have read and enjoyed the Kipling to be amazed and delighted by this dark, thrilling tale. With black humor, real suspense, a righteous hero the reader can't help but cheer for, all told as if through the innocent eyes of a child (only a child is innocent enough to both believe in and to not be afraid of ghosts, after all), this is both a brilliant homage and a wonderful adventure book.

five stars

Friday, May 24, 2013

Little Women And Me

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Emily March, a middle sister who constantly schemes to get boys’ attention from her sisters, is magically drawn into the 1860s world of Little Women, as a fifth sister. Deciding that she has been put into the story for a reason – to save Beth’s life – she charges forth, oblivious to her anachronistic speech and behavior… only to get sidetracked by rivalry with the similarly creative Jo and by the arrival of Laurie, the love interest for one or more of the girls.

This is a generally simplistic novel, aimed unabashedly at teen girls (there’s talk of bras and strategic shaving and periods). The “romantic” plot and Emily’s lesson that she doesn’t always need to get boys’ attention just for the sake of attention is fairly heavy-handed, and there’s very little a young reader could learn about the world of Jo and Amy March in these pages. I thought Baratz-Logsted was trying to have her character both ways – literate and book-loving, yet completely, like, spacey about language and customs the way any teen girl would be. The extra twist at the end was unexpected and rather fun, but the plot ran too much toward the boys-and-makeup line than the trapped-in-a-good-book story I was expecting.

two stars

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Big In China

by Alan Paul
A music writer, Paul travels to Beijing with his wife and their three children when she is offered a job as the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief there. He works hard at the language, gets a driver’s license, enjoys the food, writes columns, and becomes the stay-at-home parent in the foreigner’s compound, complete with servants. With a new perspective and perhaps more time on his hands, he takes up guitar again and hangs out in music clubs. After being called on stage and performing a few classic rock standards, Paul thinks he’s found a winning formula and soon puts together a band with another ex-pat and three Chinese musicians. After extensive practicing and touring, this band is named “Best New Band in Beijing” – a rather stunning feat in a usually fairly insular culture that gives no quarter to foreigners.

This is a fun, witty book about how one man’s enthusiastic embrace of the new led him to revitalize his passion for music, and to change the music scene of Beijing itself. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and positivity in this book, something that is lacking in many Westerner-in-China memoirs. Where almost every other visitor and ex-pat dwells on the honking and crush of traffic, Paul sees it as an escapade. The exotic food, the language barrier, the culture clash – all is opportunity or adventure for Paul, not a challenge or hardship. Granted, his viewpoint could be called insular itself; as a member of a working ex-pat family and not a tourist, he probably didn’t deal with bureaucrats or xenophobes as much as some visitors. But regardless, his positivity and equitable understanding are refreshing and contagious traits. Whether it’s attending to his young children’s culture shock, his ailing father, his quiet and serious bandmate, or his tutor’s worried vacillating about the life path he is meant to take, Paul focuses on human connections, not differences. Musing on the changed landscape and displaced people in the constant reinvention he notices in Beijing, Paul notes only, and very wisely, “everyone’s view of ‘normal’ starts the moment they arrive” – he wasn’t about to fret about what Beijing was “becoming;” he was too busy being involved in what it was. This is an inspiring and very unusual tale.

four stars

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How We Decide

by Jonah Lehrer

A look at the existing literature on behavioral science and the conclusions it makes about how we make decisions; specifically, the book argues that we do not simply decide rationally. Rather, we use a blend of emotion, gut feeling, or instinct, as well as a rational weighing of pros and cons, when we decide. Or at least, we should. (The experimental literature is especially fascinating here, as for example in the man who has a brain injury that leaves him affectless and unmoved by emotion, and thus unable to make even the simplest decision, as he gets caught up in an endless loop of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility.) Snap decisions based on observation and instinct, Lehrer shows in countless examples, are often better (as in successfully crash-landing a plane or escaping a forest fire) than simply listening to one’s desires (as those trapped in credit card debt know too well). On the other hand, as Lehrer shows from examples in the fields of sports and art, over-thinking a mistake or a challenge can lead to perpetual self-doubt and undoing. The crucial point is that deciders must analyze their own decisions and watch carefully how much emotion is biasing their choices; we “know more than we think we know,” and if we apply reason to that knowledge, we can make efficient decisions.

This isn’t a particularly weighty or earth-shaking conclusion, and much of the material here can be found in other popular books on neuroscience. I recognized the hot hands study, the story of the firefighter who built a burnt patch to save himself, and several others. Instead of providing further insight on or alternative interpretations of these studies, Lehrer repeats their key points in such a way that they relate to his larger claims about decision making. I also learned, just before finishing this book, that Lehrer is the disgraced journalist who manufactured Bob Dylan quotes for a subsequent book. So, caveat lector, I suppose. Those problematic aspects aside, I very much enjoyed this book, with its wealth of fascinating anecdotes from brain studies and its practical, sensible applications of the studies to advice on how to decide. Lehrer’s style is breezy and accessible, and he has a gift for finding the empathy, suspense, and drama in every human story.

four stars

Monday, May 6, 2013


by Roald Dahl

Matilda, an intellectually precocious and sweet-natured girl, is dismissed and insulted by her oblivious, greedy, dishonest parents. Bored and aggravated by their bullying and ignorance, Matilda pulls pranks on her family, such as tricking her father into peroxiding his hair or making them think there is a ghost in the house. In school, Matilda befriends a loving teacher named Miss Honey who appreciates her, but the entire school suffers under the cartoonishly violent corporal punishment of the perpetually outraged headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Her rage at the injustice of Trunchbull’s methods causes Matilda to demonstrate sudden telekinetic powers, which she develops in order to right a great wrong that had been done to Miss Honey long ago.

This book shines with Roald Dahl’s typical humor and quirky disregard for reality, but also deals with matters important to children such as being respected and fairness. Dahl’s own unpleasant experiences at boarding school inspired him to rage against injustice and bullying; this sort of personal outrage gives his protagonists real fire, and sparks the reader to cheer at the bullies’ comeuppance. A scene in which an older child tells Matilda that school is like a war surely rings true as well for any precocious and gentle soul who faced the mockery of groups of older children, and makes these elaborate children’s revenge fantasies more grounded in reality than their magic qualities would suggest. As Matilda says of Trunchbull’s outlandish acts, "Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable.” This could easily be said of Dahl’s philosophy and writing style. It’s a joy to watch Matilda put things right in such an outrageous and completely crazy way.

five stars