Friday, August 30, 2013

Crispin: The Cross Of Lead

by Avi

Winner of the 2003 Newbery, this historical novel is set in England, 1377.  Crispin, an orphan peasant, is told by his village priest that there is a secret regarding his birth.  But after stumbling upon the cruel village steward making a secret plan in the woods, Crispin is declared a “wolf’s head” – a non-person whom anyone may kill for a reward – and he is forced to flee.  He comes upon Bear, a jester who secretly works to bring a worker’s revolution to England, and together they travel to the “big city” of Wexly, where to Crispin’s horror the steward has followed them, and both their lives are in danger.

This is an interesting choice for the Newbery – Avi strives hard to recreate the historical milieu in which Crispin lives, so first and foremost, the prose is absolutely drenched in medieval Christian thought.  Although Bear is an apostate, Crispin and many other characters are literally “God-fearing,” expecting swift and horrible punishments for their every transgression and believing utterly that a broken vow to Jesus (no matter how profane or involuntary) will result in immediate damnation.  Then, just so everyone has something to be offended about, Avi has Crispin, if not explicitly reject this mindset, at least question it; he stops praying and pledges to make his own decisions, and later uses the binding power of an unwilling vow as a tool for his own ends.  Finally, there’s the vocabulary: in addition to words like “trepidation” and “disconsolate,” Avi doesn’t shy away from the archaic terms: mazer, patten, kirtle, withal.  It’s a terrific historical adventure story, I would think suitable for older teens and up; its value is not so much in the plot (which is fairly straightforward, hardly original, and rather far-fetched at the end) as it is in recreating the highly religious, hierarchical, nasty, sometimes brutish and short lives of the medieval European.

four stars

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy
translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude

Stiva Oblonsky, an affable and slightly clueless aristocrat, has been caught cheating by his wife Dolly, and brings in his urbane married sister Anna to reconcile them.  She does, but falls in love with Vronsky, a dashing roué of a military man who is courting Dolly’s younger sister Kitty.  They begin a tumultuous affair, hindered by Anna’s somewhat cold, reputation-conscious husband, but the illegitimacy of their relationship causes unhappiness.  Meanwhile, Levin, a socially awkward intellectual and landowner, who is a sort of angry young man with sympathy for the working class, is also courting Kitty; when rebuffed by her, he withdraws but never forgets her.  That’s a very brief synopsis of the three main plotlines in this epic novel (nearly twice the length of Moby Dick).

As the story of a troubled marriage caused by cheating, an unhappy affair, and a happy, devoted marriage, this novel is taken up by many as a moralistic cautionary tale.  The polarization of the insecure but careful Levin, burning with intense but noble and innocent passion, with Anna, who is swayed by her passions without thinking of the obvious consequences, makes up the main characterization of the novel.  But Tolstoy is more subtle than this simple dichotomy.  There are no perfect beings in this book, there is no absolute right or wrong; it’s the practical (or impractical) decisions that people make which make them happy or unhappy, not their “inner characters.”  At times, the reader sympathizes deeply with the unhappy Anna, despite the fact that her troubles are of her own making; and he continues to present Oblonsky as a sympathetic fellow, even as he puzzles over why his wife should be so upset over his philandering.  Tolstoy shows that he understands human motive; whether you judge it right or wrong isn’t as important as that you know why they act as they do.  This is also a novel of manners, in a way, though there are some truly profound passages in Anna Karenina that explore the fundamental questions of life.  As the characters struggle with their own existentialist crises – the acceptance of society vs. following your heart, materialism vs. faith, raising up the working class vs. realizing that many of them don’t want to work hard or raise their station – how they handle those crises is what elevates them to happiness or bleak despair.  Although it’s an engrossing and intelligent novel, I don’t rank it as one of my favorites.  I was annoyed at times, as I can be with these stuffy characters from another era, at their infantile waffling or stubbornness.  For example, Levin’s jealousy is adolescent and totally baseless, yet it consumes him at times.  Anna’s insistence on going out in society, when Vronsky and all logic insist that this would be a very foolish thing to do, is baffling from a modern standpoint.  And I was plain bored during some passages, such as a long tedious hunting excursion Levin goes on which doesn’t seem to have much to do with some of the grander questions he deals with.  On the whole, this is a very fine novel, but to me not a Great Novel.

four stars

Sunday, August 18, 2013


by Audrey Couloumbis

A few days before Christmas, ten-year-old Jake’s single mother slips on the ice and breaks her leg badly, requiring an operation.  A very kindly neighbor and Jake’s gruff, estranged grandfather (and his small “nightmare” dog), plus a few other relatives and family friends come together to take up the slack, and soon things are bustling along more richly than ever.  Jake’s grandfather gently pushes him to get over his fear of swimming, the dog gets used to walking with strangers, chess games and movies are enjoyed, and hot meals and extra sandwiches are the order of the day.  Indeed, each of the principals learns a bit from the other, and though the book’s action only lasts a few days, there are indications that Jake’s idea of what a family is might be expanding.  There’s no melodrama or big crisis in this heartwarming, at times moving book, just an underlying message of caring for others, hope, and the supreme value of human connections.  It’s a beautifully written, warm, charming book.

five stars

Monday, August 12, 2013

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

The authors study the brain science behind competition – why some people thrive under stress and some don’t, the role of gender and hormone levels, the role of reward vs. risk, and so on – to uncover some findings that run counter to common belief.  One of these is that stress can be a positive factor in some types of personalities, called “warriors” here and distinguished from “worriers”; the latter thrive better in situations that call for planning, memory, and organization.  Another finding is that teams do not have to get along or be friends to succeed, rather dominating when players’ roles are known and unequal (think of Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” or the NBA, where rivalries run high but skill and pay levels are generally conceded as commensurate).  Recalling studies I have read elsewhere about the science of top athletes “choking,” the book also explores how expectations and the presence of spectators can affect performance, and how the idea of “playing to win” rather than “playing not to lose” is much more appealing to us, and thus by its framing determines how the same physical action might succeed or fail.  I found the information on the role hormones play to be fascinating: for example, testosterone does not increase aggression in competitors but rather increases determination, teamwork, fearlessness, tactical decision-making… indeed, any trait that will increase a player’s esteem in the eyes of others and determine a win. In the same vein, the authors show that oxytocin, widely known as the “love hormone,” does not merely increase a nurturing instinct but also sharpens the ability to determine threats vs. friends, and increases wariness and the protective urge, both of which help competitors win.  In regards to gender roles, in what is probably one of the more controversial section of the book, the authors assert that men, blind to their shortcomings, are more likely to take on competition with very little chance of success, whereas women, “better judges of their own ability,” tend to compete only when there is a realistic chance for success, which helps in part explain why there are far fewer women than men candidates for public office at the high levels, and why women make much more accurate stock analysts.  Finally, in one of the more counterintuitive findings, the book shows that positive thinking can actually hurt competitors: not taking the competition seriously, or assuming everything will go smoothly, does nothing to help one prepare.  Instead, top competitors review their failures rationally and indulge in “subtractive counterfactuals” – that is, identifying what one should not have done, identifying obstacles to success and removing them, rather than saying “if only I had…”

This is not a self-help book, but the science can, of course, be used to help improve competitors’ performance.  For example, knowing that each person has an optimal level of stress, that controlled focused anger can boost performance, or that reviewing failures is more productive than fantasizing about victory, can help competitors adapt a winning mindset.  The information is sometimes presented in a rather scattershot way within chapters, and there is almost no discussion of how environmental factors may influence competitions, but it is on the whole a lucid, thorough, illuminating, and useful work on one of humanity’s most basic urges – the impulse to win. 

four stars

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken!

by Sally Warner

EllRay (short for Lancelot Raymond), the smallest kid in his third grade class, is being physically and verbally assaulted by a large bully and his follower. Something of a cut-up, and with a short temper, normally EllRay would react to this stress with verbal comebacks or acting out in class, but he’s trying his hardest to avoid all trouble this week, because if he can do that, his normally demanding father will take him to Disneyland.

This is an interesting book that tries to tackle a rather important subject, and despite its humorous tone and slight word count, it manages to hit some points about what gives bullies their power. The book’s message seems to be that parental and teacher involvement is crucial to arriving at a resolution, and that a child’s physical safety is dependent on other students changing their attitudes toward bullying from standing by to directly intervening. Of course, this is a bit of a cop-out, since parents and teachers often remain unaware of silent, persistent bullying, and students almost never rise up en masse to take the side of the weaker party, except in TV shows and books.

Aside from the bullying issue, I admired how Warner kept her prose simple, and used EllRay’s narration to explain some expressions that kids might not get such as “enlighten me” or “bad vibes” which she has the adults employ. I was distracted by how many times EllRay made flat pronouncements about what boys and girls do, such as: “boys don’t skip,” “girls are neat,” “girls don’t tattle,” “girls know how to spread their misery around,” and so on. I realize this is an eight-year-old boy talking, but I’m not sure I approve of perpetuating these stereotypes in kids’ books. I also wondered at Warner’s depiction of the teacher, who while wise in the ways of her kids’ behavior, must “check her notes” constantly while giving lessons or defining unusual words. What might be Warner’s point there – that no one has all the answers, teachers are too overworked to prepare themselves for lessons, or what? In any case, I think kids will identify with the funny, put-upon EllRay, who explains himself and his world so well while dealing with pressure from parents and peers alike.

three stars