Friday, August 31

Poetry Friday: Something About America

Maria Testa
Candlewick 2005

I was originally going to bow out of Poetry Friday this week with a collection of original things that, honestly, I wasn't sure were worth the electrons. Instead I discovered a collection of poems that caught me in a funny place. The night before I was ranting on to anyone who would listen (my wife) about all the things that I hated about this country and the way it behaves.

Then I pick up this book. The narrator of these poems weaves a narrative about escaping Kosova during the ethnic cleansing. She was four when her village, her house, were set ablaze. Her parents escaped to America, fleeing for their lives and for the hospitals that would help their daughter heal. And among the poems are diatribes from her father, complaining about America like any good American. I had to step back and think about my previous night's diatribes.

She continues, this girl, growing up in America, and American. Here's the poem that caught my attention.
One Small Sticker
(Like a Neon Sign)

On September 12, 2001
my father pressed
one small sticker,
an American flag sticker,
into a corner
of the outside window
on our front door.
He pressed it firmly,
perfectly straight,
like it was meant
to last

It's still there.
And every time I look at it,
that one small sticker,
fading fast
and curling around the edges,
seems to shine as brightly
as a blinking beer sign
in a bar window.

Beer inside!
American inside!

Please believe us.
I remember during the first gulf war, stories from urban centers where anyone who looked vaguely Middle Eastern fell under verbal and physical attack. I remember stories of native-born Pakistanis and Indians and even one Pacific Islander begging people on the news not to burn down their businesses, not to chase them from their homes. Please believe us.

The Kosava immigrants in the book settled in Lewiston, Maine where a few years after 9-11 the mayor had sent a letter to Somali leaders telling them that the town had "maxed out" on their share of immigrants. Then an anti-immigration rally was planned, and the immigrants organized a pro-immigrant rally. 30 people protested the immigrants, 6000 showed up to celebrate what it meant to be an American from another country.

In very simple language, simple images, small phrases and careful crafting Testa sets down a multi-faceted look at what it means to to be an outsider, an American by choice, and how easily those ideals that we consider rights by birth can easily be twisted into hypocrisy and fed by ignorance.

Why does tolerance intimidate and frighten so many who claim a religious upbringing?

Thursday, August 30

How Big is the World?

by Britta Techentrup
Boxer Books UK / Sterling US 2007

Mole asks his papa "How big is the world?"
Papa replies "Why don't you go see?"

And out into the world little Mole goes. Mole asks all the creatures he encounters and they, in turn, answer according to their experience. Spider says the world extends to the end of his web, Mouse says it's to the end of his field, House says to the edge of the sea, and then when Mole gets to the sea he comes to a whale who takes him for a tour of the world, finally exclaiming that he doesn't really think the world has an end. Having seen all he can Mole decides he should probably return home.

"So how big is the world?" asks Papa.
"As big as you want it to be," says Mole.

I walked into this book a little cautious because the art feels a little muddled to me and because it was published by Sterling. I haven't seen much come out of Sterling that I've liked so I was a little surprised to not be totally put off by what I read. In fact, I sorta like this intrepid little Mole going out and finding answers for themselves.

Yes, exactly! Parents, adults, stop feeding kids answers and tell them to go explore the world for themselves. No, don't send your four-year-olds out on the backs of whales, but show them how and where (the library, the park, the basement, wherever) to find answers for themselves so that they learn from the start that the journey is part of the answer.

I'm still going to hold that this book could have been better illustrated -- everything felt a little stiff, stagy, a little block-y -- so definitely a library read.

Wednesday, August 29

Abandoned: Love, Stargirl

by Jerry Spinelli
Random House 2007

Spoilers included, if you care.

How sad. When Stargirl was published half a lifetime ago I loved it. I loved her. I even loved the ending which, I have come to discover from others, was not the most universally loved part of that book. No matter, it was and still is, a great little book to me.

Immediately afterward I wondered what happened next but knew better than to hitch my wish to a star that Spinelli would write a follow-up. Could he capture the same lightning in a bottle, I wondered?

I wonder no more. I've had access to the ARC of this book for seven months now but I just couldn't bring myself to read it. I was torn: I wanted it to be good, and I didn't want to tarnish my memories of the first book. Enough about me.

What worked with Stargirl was that it was a portrait of Stargirl viewed from the outside, from the perspective of Leo, average boy. We watched Leo struggle with recognizing the outsider for who and what she was, watched how he agonized over defending and rejecting her, using this confusion to better define himself and his beliefs. She was who she was and we had Leo's world to contrast it against.

Sixty pages into Love, Stargirl and I feel like Leo led us astray, like his vision was clouded by... something, I don't know. Adolescent blinders? It's the same Stargirl, but she's inside some Bizarro World where everything around her is as weird (or weirder) than she is. Her diary entries addressed to Leo pick up shortly after where the previous book left off but without a baseline normal to gauge against it's like some fun house mirror version of Stargirl.

In a word, yuk.

There's a precocious neighbor kid that is supposed to re-ground Stargirl but, one, I don't buy into her as a character and, two, she annoys me to the point that every time I saw her appear I wanted to skip ahead to when she'd disappear. But she's a fairly main character, and reading only those parts without the little snot would leave me with a government pamphlet of a book. Then there's this old guy mooning in the graveyard and I'm, like, yeah, okay, whatever, that's kind of a tired image. And the scruffy boy that's suppose to show Stargirl how much she's changed and grown since she left Leo and...

Wait! The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future! Who she was, is and could be! Yawn!

That's grasping. I really couldn't get beyond those first 60 pages before jumping to the end to read the last chapter. And there she is, at the end of her diary, about ready to mail off her book-length epistle to Leo with the promise that one day they'll meet again, if the accident will. And if I were Leo I'd shake my head and wonder what this girl was using for brains because, honestly, after a year of silence, if I got this in the mail I'd probably consider myself lucky she was gone.

There's a part of me that thinks it's wrong to review a book I couldn't finish. I don't ditch a book that often, usually I put it aside and try several more times before giving it another shot, eventually forcing myself to finish. And even then, while I will review things I don't like I don't review everything I hate. But this book is trading on my memory of a book I loved and to crush that memory so completely, well, I just couldn't let it go unnoted.

If there was a great cry across the land from those of us who begged to know more about Stargirl, and if after years of not writing about her Jerry Spinelli finally gave in and wrote this book, and if my unconscious thoughts were part of that transmission then I kindly apologize and respectfully ask for my thoughts back.

Tuesday, August 28

Every Minute on Earth

Fun Facts That Happen Every 60 Seconds
Steve Murrie and Matthew Murrie
illustrated by Mary Anne Lloyd
Scholastic 2007

Yes, another book of lists, this one with a fact per page illuminating some aspect of things that take place on the planet each minute. Did you know that Americans are drinking 208,333 cups of coffer per minute? That's a lot of java, and someone has to be picking up my slack because I'm not drinking any! A little closer to home, a red blood cell will travel 27 feet in a minute. I wonder if that's one-way or round trip or just a layover destination.

While I find this sort of book perfect for car travel, and certainly perfect for fact-hungry boys, I can't help but feel there's a lost opportunity in not following up on at least some of the information. For example, automotive tires are made at the rate of 572 a minute in the United States, which adds up to about 300 million tires every year. But where do they end up and what resources are used in the process? Perhaps too political a subject, to point out the downside to our consumerism, but if the rates listed in the book are meant to impress then color me impressed by the vast quantities of things we don't think about. I guess that takes all the "fun" out of the book.

On a more personal note, it was nice to see the length of the average movie laid out in feet. I once worked in movie theatres and on a couple of occasions when I really wanted to mess with people whenever they asked "How long is the feature?" I liked to say "Oh, just over two miles." They'd pause, and nod, and then it would hit them that length had more than one meaning. Most of the time I'd follow up with "Around two hours" but occasionally people walked away with that information and didn't seem to notice what I'd said.

A lot of that in retail, people asking questions without actually listening to the answers. But I digress.

My bottom line on this is that this is perfect for a library or as a jump-off point for discussing some of the underlying meaning of some of the information, otherwise unstellar.

Monday, August 27


by Adam Rex
Harcourt 2007

I get it now. I wasn't sure before when I first came across Adam Rex's Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich last year but after seeing this there's no doubt in my mind:

Adam Rex is making picture books for adults.

Sure, they can be enjoyed on certain levels by kids but the reality is that there's just too much packed into his illustrations for these to be for children. I wonder if his publishers and editors have figured it out. I bet the art department has and they're just keeping it to themselves.

A girl goes the the zoo and one by one different animals call her over for a little private chat. "Psst! Can you get me some tires?" the gorilla asks. "Why?" Isolated panel of a tire swing, the tire ripped from the rope. The girl promises to try. Next exhibit the bats want flashlights, not for them but for the hippo that they share a cave with. The peccary wants trash cans for all their trash. The penguins want paint because they can't stand all the white of their exhibit space. The sloths need helmets because they're falling out of trees and landing on their heads. Reasonable requests all.

Finally the animals give her money to make the various purchases ("The peacock collected the coins from the fountains.") and she's off to the hardware and supply store across the street from the zoo where everything beginning with the letter T is on sale for half off. Too bad she doesn't need a tiki or timber.

Each of the pages where the girl converses with the animals is presented like a one-page panel comic, buffered with spread where the girl is making her way around the zoo. It's in the spreads -- done in a pencil-draft style compared to the full color of the conversations -- where Rex includes lots of strange little details that might not register with younger readers. First a fawn and later a rhino are shown free-wheeling around the zoo in clear plastic balls. Trash cans topped with animal heads suggest a place to put trash in their mouth but later a panda-headed can is labeled "bamboo" and a tiger-head can is labeled "steak". Near the bat cave an elderly gentleman in a Batman suit is sitting, most likely the original 1930's Batman retired to the edges of the zoo.

It's the punchline of the book that sold me on the idea that there was a different audience for this book than the one I assumed. Once the animals have what they need the girl hopes their all happy and goes about her way. Turn the page and you see what they've done with their new toys: they've built an Ed "Big Daddy" Roth hot rod circa 1966 to ride around the zoo at night.

(For the kids out there who don't know who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is and what grew out of the mid-1960's hot rod culture)

Do I believe there are books out there that children and adults can enjoy together, conceived as a piece of mutual entertainment much the same way that Pixar includes jokes and sight gags for the captive adult audience? Yes. Do I think that Pssst! is equally enjoyable to young and old with each getting different things from it? Naturally.

But I still maintain that I think Adam Rex is putting one over on the publishers.

Friday, August 24

Poetry Friday: Two About War

I caught a peep at a new book due out in the spring called America At War, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. The selections are grouped by the major American wars starting with poems about the Revolutionary War and concluding with poems from the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

I had been looking lately for a poem about the Vietnam War that might resonate today. I found in this collection a Sandburg poem from World War I that I had forgotten.

Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high as Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What is this place?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

I remember being more than a little creeped out when my 7th grade teacher had us memorize that, the images of the grass growing over the fallen. Since then I've come to hear the weary voice of the grass begging to be allowed to cover over the scars of battle. Not to hide but to heal.

I had also been looking for a poem by Denise Levertov, separate from a war poem, and found this in the same collection.

What Were They Like?
Denise Levertov

1) Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?
2) Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
4) Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
5) Had they and epic poem?
6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illuminated pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
5) It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants, their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
6) there is no echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.
Too much silence these days, too quiet for my taste.

Friday, August 17

Poetry Friday: "No" by Toon Tellegen

When I was a kid the newly created volunteer army was attempting to rebuild its ranks through advertising -- something about joining the army, see the world. In response there were counter-cultural bumper stickers and buttons (available in the classifieds of Rolling Stone or the pages of High Times or your hipper hobby shops) that mocked their attempting-to-be-with-it efforts with the rejoinder "Join the Army, travel to exotic, distant lands, meet lots of interesting people, and kill them." The more things change, the more they stay the same?

I thought about that ad on my recent travels. Not about killing people, mainly the part about meeting interesting people and the doorways that are opened in such exchanges. I'm not much for chatting up strangers even at home, though I am particularly fond of meeting interesting people in the books they write. Every trip I take I manage to find a new author, a new voice, something that marks not only the place but the experience I had along the way. This time around I managed to luck out, this time around I found a Dutch author noted for his poetry and children's books.

I knew nothing about Toon Tellegen when I saw his books sitting next to translated editions of Sharon Creech's Love That Dog and Roald Dahl but I had this sense that anyone being given that sort of attention had to be someone to check out. I fudged my way through enough Dutch to see that he was a prize winning poet in his native land and, sure enough, had a shelf to himself in the poetry section. It was silly to imagine I'd find an English translation of his work so I decided to pick up one of his children's titles to (eventually) try and translate for myself with the hope that once I was home I could learn more about him.

While Tellegen merits a Dutch Wiki page information in English has been hard to come by. I did find a site featuring a biography and selection of his poems and was immediately struck with what I read. You know what kind of a crapshoot this kind of thing can be, where you take a gamble on something (the lunch special in a language you can't read, for example) hoping for the best but resigning yourself to the whim to chance. Sometimes chance rewards you for the adventure. Behold.

No was a small word,
an insignificant word.

It listened to the large words
Yes and We and Always.

It studied the crumbs of their thoughts
that they dropped from their table.

It was not a stupid word.

One day it crept into the kitchen,
climbed onto the sink,
grabbed a knife
and ate it.
(Words can eat things.)

It was still a small word,
but no longer an insignificant word – that never again –

and it returned to the room,
sat under the table
and listened.

translated by Judith Wilkinson originally appeared in The Literary Review

There's something not just a little creepy about that No under the table, able to eat knives, waiting for its chance against those big words. Wait, did I just think there was something creepy about a knife-eating word? Did I suddenly have an entire world open up where words represent something other than their common meaning? Did I just attempt to imagine what sort of foods other words ate that left crumbs? Man, you gotta dig the power of words at times to conjure and illuminate.

I can't wait to figure out what sort of stories he has for children.

Thursday, August 16

One Beastly Beast: Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales

by Garth Nix
HarperCollins 2007

In his introduction Nix introduces us to a lucky boy who loved to read all kinds of stories, especially ones with monsters and adventures and all sorts of fantastical things. He then explains that he was that boy, and that when he writes he likes to write the sort of things he'd like to read.

This book was written for that boy.

This collection brings together four shorter stories of children -- two boys and two girls -- who each have their own sort of fantastical adventures.

* * * * *

That's as much as I wrote before I went on holiday, followed by some notes intended to help me remember the stories so I could flesh out the review later. In the interest of showing you the very thought process behind a review, a sort of armature for the way my brain works, and out of sheer laziness I've decided to leave my notes raw and unedited for all the world to see.

story 1. puns: rats, pirates (pie rats), pirate videos, worm holes, bread-seeking cheese

story 2. princess, bloody beast (her pet pig) eaten by robot monster created by aunt

story 3. orphaned inventor boy wards off pirates, wizard and alien adopters until his time traveling parents can retrieve him

story 4. girl with big brain, talks to sea serpent blinded by harbor lights, turning girls into penguins

If all that doesn't spark some sort of interest, well, then I guess I couldn't blame you. All I can say, as a reader and reviewer, if you know Garth Nix then you can trust he has a much better way with words than I do. These stories are entirely and thoroughly enjoyable, a perfect mix for antsy middle grade readers looking for something shorter.

Wednesday, August 15

The Cat on the Mat is Flat

by Andy Griffiths
illustrations by Terry Denton
Feiwel and Friends 2007
(Pan Macmillan, AU 2006)

"From the author of The Day My Butt Went Psycho!"

This book is just screaming for that kind of attention.

Take one part Dr. Seuss, one part Edward Lear, place in a blender with a dash of Dav Pilkey and a bit of Cartoon Network juice, pulse until the blender begins to smoke and then breathe the fumes deeply until you get a little dizzy... and then you, too, can author a book like this.

I like this book. I was once a boy. Some things just don't leave you no matter how old you get, like anarchic juvenile nonsense humor. It's got pigs on rocket-powered logs. It's got boys who repeatedly roll down a hill until they are sick and dizzy and landing smelly swill. It's got glue-dispensing kangaroos. It's got yaks. I rest my case.

No! It's also got those beginning reader rhyme patterns that Seuss made famous half a century ago. It's meant for tweens but reads like a baby book and that's a good part of it's humor; it lets an accomplished reader take stock of where they were as readers not so long ago and allows them to enjoy the satire. It is not sophisticated by any means, but instead is meant to be read as pure joy. It's a piece of candy eaten in secret between meals.

Here's are summaries of two chapters, taken from Andy Griffith's website:
Ed and Ted and Ted’s Dog Fred
In which Fred and Ted and Ted’s dog Fred do quite a lot of things that rhyme with ‘ed’.

Duck in a Truck in the Muck
In which Chuck the Duck gets his ice-cream truck stuck in muck and Buck the Duck attempts to help him get it unstuck with the aid of the muck sucker upper on his muck-sucking truck.
Yup, it's all like that.

Since the Australian cover contains a panel carton of a cat getting whacked by a rat with a bat I'm guessing the American version will be somewhat more tame -- can't be selling that sort of violence to children up front. Too bad, because I think you'd really galvanize armies of boys who would jump at this. What am I saying is, one smart pup is going to ferret this book out at the library and word-of-mouth is going to have the entire sixth grade reading this book in the same weekend across the country. One Friday they're all be yawning over the ancient hoopla over Pottermaina and the following Monday they'll all be quoting entire sections of the book to one another the way kids did after watching Monty Python or the original Saturday Night Live.

Or not.

Probably a good idea to check it out anyway, just in case.

Update: In a bit of syncronicity rarely seen here at the excelsior file, Fuse #8 has featured Andy Griffiths on her blog today!

Tuesday, August 14

The Plain Janes

by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
Minx/DC Comics 2007

On a casual spring day in the big city Jane is suddenly thrown to the ground when a bomb in a nearby trash can goes off. In the wake of this her parents decide to move out of the city and into the safety and peace of the suburbs.

Jane's fish-out-of-water attempts to fit in at her new school are coupled with her desire to create something meaningful in a sketchbook she recovered at the scene of the bombing, property of a comatose John Doe at the hospital who was also there. It's her desire to bring together her two worlds, her private "art saves" world and her very public attempts to start her life anew, that allows her to gravitate toward a cafeteria table of outcasts who share versions of the name Jane. With a little effort and some careful scheming Jane manages to bond with the others and create an activist group dedicated to bringing the people of their small town "People Loving Art In Neighborhoods", the P.L.A.I.N of the The Plain Janes.

Naturally it's the adults in town who can't tell the difference between guerrilla art and guerrilla warfare and they fear what they've long since closed their minds to; the idea that you can question what goes on in the world around you, that you don't have to accept every mini mall as inevitable, that life consists of fun and play as well as work, and that fear doesn't need to rule your life. When the Jane's New Year's Prank is busted, and the comatose artist awakens and returns to his native Poland, the outward appearance is that everything has ended but Jane knows she's found her tribe and that the Jane's will continue to thrive and create. Jane has come out the other end of her long ordeal understanding that the future is hers to create.

When I heard that DC was starting a girl-driven line of graphic novels I found myself not as excited as I wanted to be. The problem being that DC has made its fortune knowing and catering to the male-dominated worlds of fantasy, superheroes and action -- Batman, Superman, the entire Justice League, those folks. Not that this isn't a legitimate world for girls to explore, but when you aim your sights at a specific demographic that is generally the opposite of what has been your bread and butter for almost half a century there's lots of room for error and miscalculation.

Additionally, this isn't the first time the comic book world has attempted to corral the female market. Few would consider the romance comics of the 60's and 70's little more than attempt to capture the romance novel crowd, complete with their stereotypes of weepy wallflowers, silently suffering secretaries, and wasp-waist whiners... and important issues of the day like finding a suitable husband and occasionally dealing with the serious issues of having a child out of wedlock or falling for the dangerous type, occasionally also a married man. There was only one "correct" ending for these stories, generally involving a white dress, with everything else a morality play about what could happen if you, gentle reader, made the wrong choice.

Things have changed, the world has changed, and from the looks of things perhaps comics for girls have changed. A little. It was a shrewd choice to pick Castellucci for this initial offering and to deal with a story celebrating freedom of expression amongst teens (and girls especially) who often feel their voices squeezed out of the equation. Castellucci has a good feel for the outsiders and by casting the story in an age of post 9-11 security anxiety she is able to give these girls an opportunity to show us both how much and how little things have changed. Girls are still getting locked down for their own safety (ironically from themselves in this case) and that the Jane's acts of public expression are less confrontational than they are nurturing hints both at the changes and challenges ahead in graphic novels for girls. I'd like to see girls get a little more fierce without getting too hard, not to turn into boys but to definitely take the reins and challenge the status quo both in the world and in the books.

On repeated readings the flaws in the storytelling show their rough edges and I'm going to give Castellucci a pass here because writing for visual media is a whole different beast. It's primarily pacing and scene-setting I have issues with, places where I think more time or more explanation or even a simple "look" might have made a huge difference. I buy into the opening scene and the jump from that to Jane's family moving to the suburbs because I am conditioned to accept action at the beginning of a story (novel, comic, movie, play, etc) in exchange for details that will come later. But later I'm left wondering how Jane emerged from her trauma relatively unscathed, how this transformation into her mature self actually differs from who she was before. I'm also not entirely convinced of her transformation at the hands of Art, as much as I personally believe in it.

What is interesting, and perhaps totally unplanned, is how with a little shift in details this story could have been set during the cold war in the 1950's. The US government was widening streets (anything called a Boulevard in this country) and creating highways in order to mobilize armies and process huge evacuations in the event of war with the Soviets. Fear was as palpable as our terror levels today and people fled to the 'burbs (and later built gated communities) in order to affect a level of peace and security for themselves and their families. This shows itself in The Plain Janes most obviously in the way the older generation accepts the fear they blindly accept (or run from) while the younger generation is more occupied with questioning their world in an effort to find their place. To make the then-to-now transformation complete Jane and her cohorts would have to take on the more confrontational elements of the Beatniks and their art (poetry in public places?) but otherwise the stories are the same.
Minx has a couple more titles I'm hoping the check out -- the time warp that is Good as Lily, the family drama of Confessions of a Blabbermouth and the strangely compelling girl-meets-shark tale of Water Baby, in case anyone from Minx is interested in sending me a care package -- and with any luck it will be DC who gets the head start on graphic novels for middle grade and teen readers done right, not just for girls and not just as comics but as literature.

Monday, August 13

A Field Guide to High School

by Marissa Walsh
Delacorte/Random House 2007

On the day her older sister Claire takes off for college incoming 9th grader Andie finds a notebook deliberately left behind, a field guide to high school. The guide her over-achieving sister had compiled is written into an older Peterson's nature guide (a family joke, their last name is Petersen) and uses for it's headings those in the guide. Occasionally the headings relate to the subjects at hand, though more often than not that connection is forced at best.

Claire's guide is specifically to the private high school she (and soon her younger sister) will be attending. When she finds the book Andie calls her best friend Beth over to share the wisdom and puzzle over it's entries. Beth is going to attend a Catholic school in the fall and appears to exist mainly to act as Andie's sidekick for comments and to provide the occasional contrast. Despite the focus on non-public schools most of what Claire (and author Walsh by extension) portrays is equally applicable in that all the information within the book conforms to the most most basic of stereotypes.

The book launches straight in with various lessons on how to be driven to school, where to sit and eat in the cafeteria, the usual collection of rules-of-conformity that are often experienced and learned first hand. Toward the end of the book is where Claire breaks down all the different classes of people -- the nerds are called Hawkings, the rich girls are Miffy's or Heather's, et cetera ad nauseum -- though this would have made more sense at the beginning of a true field guide but would have ruined what narrative flow exists. Each section of information followed by a brief conversation by Andie and Beth to show their reaction, or to point out contradictions in Claire's depiction of herself, or just to worry about what high school is going to be like.

After they finish the book Claire calls from college to tell Andie that there's a final chapter in an envelope under her bed. When Beth leaves Andie takes it out and reads what is essentially the punchline: "The truth is, there is no field guide to high school. I made it all up." She goes on to reassure her younger sister that she'll do fine, and that she's a pretty cool person and won't have any problems.

The author, we then discover in her little biographical paragraph, does not have a sister and she did not like high school. It shows. It shows in that she thinks that an older sister giving kindly advice would spend all that time and energy pulling her sister's leg only to give her a wink and virtual hug and say "you'll be fine" when in reality that same kindly sister wouldn't have needed to write a field guide because she'd actually talk to her sibling. Or, if she wasn't a sister of the kindly nature, she'd write the field guide to freak her sister out and never let on that it was all one big joke. And if the author had actually liked high school she'd have never written a book so incredibly shallow, a book that goes out of it's way to promote stereotypes and sheer nastiness and then say, on the last page "Just kidding! Ha ha!", a book that didn't waste a reader's time. You don't (or didn't) have to like high school to write about it, but you also don't have to go around promoting it as a negative experience for the sake of a protracted "joke."

The book makes repeated references to movies, television shows and other media as shorthand for supporting the stereotypes and as an attempt at verisimilitude. The references imply a certain shared teen experience across time (The OC, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but at the same time feel more late-1980's and early 1990's-based in a way that makes them feel dated (Heathers, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). "Claire" includes an essential list of movies and songs as a sort of primer for understanding high school but, as she says, there is no real field guide to high school making these references are meaningless filler.

The entire exercise feels like a prolonged hate fantasy, a revenge-of-the-preppy-nerd with a clever title, somewhat clever format, and little humor to support it. Clearly a book only a vapid, conceited eighth grade queen bee would love... and use as a field-ops manual. Though I hate to promote books over movies, two hours with a Brat Pack film is a better use of time than reading this book. Or, if you only have three minutes, try the Bowling for Soup song High School Never Ends.

Check in tomorrow where I'll hit a graphic novel that doesn't insult its readers.

Friday, August 10

Off Holiday

Officially I won't be back up and running with regular blog posts until Monday. I should have decompressed and acclimatized enough by then to talk about books again. But one can't take a trip abroad and not come back and make a few comments.

First, IcelandAir: Worst. Airline. Ever. No matter how many times their "convenient" mid-way layovers in Reykjavik come up as the cheapest way to European destinations, resist the urge at all costs. What's not to like? After being told of a two-hour weather-related flight delay we were promised our connecting flight would wait for us at the other end.

It did not.

In fact, it was leaving the ground as ours was taxiing to the gate. Other joys: clueless guest services (they didn't even know about their own customer's rights policy, despite a posted sign), uncomfortable planes (no, really, worse than normal), weird Icelandic food in flight (meatballs made of fish? salmon carrot salad?), disorganized boarding procedures (herded into holding areas, no controlled board procedures), and the only flight (of 5) that departed and landed on time was our re-routed flight from Sweden (!) on a different airline.

That said, Paris was as beautiful as always, despite my shaky nighttime-without-a-tripod photography.

For some odd reason my first shot was of a scooter.

My last shot was also, though it was in Amsterdam.

Versailles is opulent.

This was the summer home away from the palace? No wonder the people revolted. I wonder what would happen if the excesses of our government were as visibly tangible. Oh yes, the traditional garden shot from Versailles.

And the Louvre, where you can take pictures of people taking pictures of artwork they can buy postcards of in the museum store.

Including strange self portraits in a room full of ancient Assyrian carved-stone gates reflected in a giant arced mirror.

Trust me, despite my pictures the Louvre was as crowded as the evacuation of Beijing.

And there were doorways

And doorways

And then a train to Amsterdam where arty nighttime shots were attempted (lack of focus deliberate)

And it was a big gay pride weekend, with parade flotillas along the canals

The commuter parking lots looked like this, explaining why European cities are so quiet. And require less road work.

Of course, with such quaint small streets...

They need smaller vehicles.

You can't ignore the flower market

(yes, 40 roses for about $10.25 USD)

But these are what the tulips look like right now

Unless you want fake wooden ones.

Naturally there was much that can't be properly photographed. The food, the cafe sits, the sudden insights while drifting off to sleep about the organic differences between American and European literature and how much those writers we consider literary follow that European model, browsing bookstores, coffeeshops, red light districts, art in museums where you cannot take pictures. Things like that.

Though I had hoped to make some kidlit discoveries abroad I was thwarted by such things as sightseeing and otherwise relaxing. I did manage to pick up a few books, with a couple of things noteworthy for future blog posts. But the most prominent picture book I saw in every bookstore in Paris and Amsterdam?

I guess they haven't gotten around to translating Flotsom yet. Library Lion was a close second for availability. And the two most available YA titles: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and John Green's An Abundance of Katherines.

All in all, a much-deserved and very relaxing time bridging a very intense time and a pending hectic time. I'm going to get some more sleep and work on my flickr account, get a littler more reading done and be back next week with some real content.