Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Criss Cross

It took me a while to get into Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins. There are multiple points of view (which I just complained about in The View from Saturday), and the whole tone of the narrative is rather off-hand and breezy. It didn't pull me into its criss-crossing stories right away. It was easy to put it down, which I don't think is particularly advantageous for a book. Too many readers might never come back.

I'm glad I kept coming back to Criss Cross, though. Over and over again, Perkins reminded me of what it was like to be 13 or 14. What it was like to wonder obsessively about your adult life-to-be, to stare at yourself in the mirror, and to question your identity and your relationships. Relationships with people you'd just met, changing interactions with people you'd known for years, pondering how minor decisions with these people could change your whole life. Perkins also shows how a teacher's encouragement leads one student towards a vocation and certain corresponding social roles, how seeing a guy playing a guitar at a coffee shop shop sends another kid in a different direction, and how something as random as a locker's location sparks an attraction to a neighboring classmate. It's all presented in a rather timeless manner, though I soon figured out that Criss Cross was set in the 1970's.

There are no overt references to Watergate or Viet Nam or to pop culture (no M*A*S*H* or Charlie's Angels or Led Zepplin or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*). A couple of the female characters fret about the perfect bell-bottomed jeans. Perkins' drawings of the jeans (including a thought bubble of what you say to your mom in the dressing room) is one of my favorite illustrations, one of the many illuminating cartoons that add something special to the narrative. It reminded me (favorably) of both Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And it should be noted that this is something that audiobook readers just won't get, which is a shame.

Criss Cross captures a bit of everyday life in small town: block parties, summer evenings spent listening to the radio in a truck in the driveway, and chance encounters at the Tastee-Freez - all things that I don't think are that different today than they were 30 years ago. I liked this, and I liked how Perkins handled the historicity of the story in such a subtle way.

One thing that did strike me as inescapably dated: near the end of Criss Cross, Debbie gets a letter from a boy she met (which is actually how my relationship with my husband started after a chance encounter twenty-six years ago). Obviously, this was back before e-mail, cellphones, or texting:

Debbie heard footsteps, and she quickly stuffed the picture of Peter down between her bed and the wall. The curtain moved, and her mother's head appeared.

"You have a letter," she said. "From California." (p. 279)

...Helen did sense something, an undercurrent. She thought that Debbie probably had a crush on this boy. But California was pretty far away, and she couldn't have gotten to know him very well in such a short time. Maybe they would exchange a few letters.

"He looks very nice," she said. "He's a cute boy."

"He is nice," said Debbie.

It was as close as she could come to saying, "I need to go to California. Can I?"

But it wasn't very close, not close enough. Her mother had no way of knowing that this would have been a good time to tell her daughter that she had once known a boy who went away. A boy who had made a game of finding little figures of dogs, and giving them to her. They might have talked then about how that felt, and what you did next. But their secrets inadvertently sidestepped each other, unaware, like blindfolded elephants crossing the tiny room (p. 281).

Readers looking for an exciting action-filled story with definite conclusions will probably be disappointed by Criss Cross, but I found myself wanting to know more about the characters after I finished it (see Peter D. Sieruta's blog post on "You Know It's a Good Book When...."). What happens to Lenny? He was one of the most appealing characters I've run across in a kids' book lately. Does Dan Persik redeem himself or turn into even more of ass? Does Hector keep playing the guitar? Does Debbie write back to Peter? Maybe she can go to college in California.

Yes, I guess I did like Criss Cross quite a bit.

*But Were Afraid to Ask - a book I remember sneaking quite a few looks at in my early teens in the 70's. Sex is not really an issue broached in Criss Cross, though romantic attraction is important in it. This makes the book more accessible to younger readers, though they might be bored with adolescents' ruminations about life.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thimble Summer

Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, is a quiet and very old-fashioned children's story. It was a pleasant read, full of the sensory pleasures of summer on a farm in southern Wisconsin - but the characters never seemed real nor particularly interesting to me. Even the main character, nine year old Garnet, remained distant right up to the end of the book.

There were hundreds of odors in the night air; Garnet raised her nose like a puppy to smell them all. Cabbages decaying richly in gardens made her hold her breath in passing; but the cornfields were wonderful, they had a special smell after dark that you never noticed in the daytime. It didn't smell like corn at all, but strange and spicy like incense in a church (p 33).

I can attest to the fact that corn has a distinctive smell on a hot summer night (though it never reminded me of incense), but I couldn't help but remember that Garnet's family raises pigs in Thimble Summer. You can smell a pig farm from close to a mile away - or more, if it's windy. Forget cabbages. Anyway, that's what I remember when I think about the smell of cornfields in the summer. That and speeding down gravel roads with the wind blowing through the windows and the 8-track player blasting Pink Floyd, but that really dates me.

I know that there's no need to dwell on all of the not-so-wonderful parts of farm life, like pig manure, but despite the fact that Thimble Summer is set (and was written) during the Great Depression, there's not much in the book that isn't overwhelmingly nice.

There are lots of other Newbery winners that celebrate rural life (and A Year Down Yonder and Out of the Dust, which I both loved, are also set in the 1930's), but the other winners - even the mainly upbeat books, like Miracles on Maple Hill and Caddie Woodlawn - have drama and emotion and memorable characters along with their portrayals of farm life. I kept expecting to get more of this in Thimble Summer, but before I knew it, the summer was over and nothing more had materialized.

I did have a good time talking about Depression-era food with my mom, who grew up on a farm then:

The two girls went into the kitchen for something to eat. They found a chocolate cake in the cakebox and some hermits in a crockery jar. That was the wonderful thing about Citronella's house; there was always a cake in the kitchen at the right time. Often there was a dish of vinegar candy, too; and the cooky jar was never quite empty. Probably that was why most of the Hausers were so fat (p. 28).

Cakeboxes! A few people probably still have breadboxes, but I'll bet only antique dealers and people with family heirlooms have still cakeboxes (or pie safes, come to think of it).

If you want a pleasant interlude in a time and a place that is far away from most of our lives, you might enjoy Thimble Summer. Just don't expect much action, depth, or development with your nostalgia.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

Olivia and I just finished this book, which we had to take turns reading and act out our parts. What a great book. It was well written, super fun to read and act out, and I think it may be one that I buy for my bookshelf. I highly recommend it to anyone, whether they like poetry, England, one man plays, or none of the above. Two thumbs up from the 9 year old. :) - Alicia

It is very very cool because they are one man plays. It is not what you think. Um, one of the best books that I have read in that reading level. - Olivia

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Walk Two Moons

It seems like most readers love Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. My 12 year old works in his school library (which serves 400+ 5th and 6th graders), and reports that it is checked out often and that both adults and kids say it's great, though he hasn't read it and doesn't really want to do so - I suspect because he thinks it's a girl book. I'm hoping he gets past this phase soon.

Anyway, I was a bit surprised when I didn't start out liking Walk Two Moons very much at all.

I felt like Creech did a good job of capturing how some different kids think (and Phoebe and Sal were both wonderful, complicated characters), and there were some great portrayals of stiff-necked parents and grandparents and loud (vs. mildly neurotic) kids:

"I don't how you can stand it," Phoebe said to Mary Lou.

"Stand what?"

Phoebe pointed to Tommy and Dougie, who were running around like wound-up toys, making airplane noises and train noises and zooming in between us and then running up ahead and falling over each other and crying and then leaping back up again and socking each other and chasing after bumblebees.

"I'm used to it," Mary Lou said. "My brothers are always doing beef-brained things." (p. 62)

But I was increasingly annoyed by the tone of the story - in an early draft of this review, I even wrote a snide sentence about how there were enough chickabiddies, gooseberries, whang-doodles and the like to last me 'til the next blue moon. And as someone who has regularly driven from Indiana to Illinois near the spot where both states touch Lake Michigan, the part where Gram and Gramps and Salamanca see Lake Michigan after a big curve in the road just bothered me. We've tried all of the different routes into the Chicago area, and there is just nowhere where you can see "a huge jing-bang mass of water....as blue as the bluebells that grow behind the barn....like a huge blue pasture of water" (p. 36-37) from any highway or road into the Windy City. It's all abandoned steel mills and grain elevators and huge industrial complexes around there. You can't see the lake until you're way past the state border, and there is just no way you can swerve across two lanes of traffic and be standing barefoot in Lake Michigan "faster than you can milk a cow".

I know, you may think it's a petty complaint, but it's always jarring when your reality is so very different from an author's.

Similarly, some American Indians aren't particularly thrilled by Creech's use of rather generic nature-loving Indian stereotypes in Walk Two Moons (or the fortune-cookie title). And I thought the whole Native heritage part of the book actually detracted from the story - it didn't really serve any purpose that I could see except making Sal and her mother slightly exotic, with their unusual names, and giving them an excuse to feel closer to nature. Can't a sixth-grader with African or German great-great-grandparents feel just as much connection to their environment as Salamanca Tree Hiddle does?

Around the middle of the book, though, I was so drawn into Phoebe and Sal's intertwined stories, that most of my earlier criticisms faded. I thought I had figured out the mystery of Sal's mother, Chanhassen, early on in the story, but it turned out to be much more complicated than I had anticipated. And I really appreciated the way that Creech examined women's roles as mothers and wives in this part of the book, and Salamanca's increasing understanding of her mother, and her understanding of how other people (like Phoebe) see their own mothers.

Phoebe's obsession with cholesterol is one of the funnier parts of the book, and pretty prescient when it comes to orthorexia (an overriding focus on eating the right kinds of foods), recently popularized by Michael Pollan in his latest book - In Defense of Food.

I was surprised and moved by the plot twists in the second half of the book - it was undeniably powerful and cleverly mapped out, the way more and more of the story was revealed. I think I'd like to read something else by Sharon Creech, and if I don't endorse Walk Two Moons as whole-heartedly as some of its other readers, I do have to say that I am very glad to have read it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Newbery Winners Have You Given Up On?

Or which ones have you had to force yourself to finish (because it was assigned, or you were doing it for something like this project, or because you can't stand not finishing books)?

This post inspired by Roger Sutton's post on Giving Up, which also asks:

Fessing Up: how much of a book do you have to have read in order to say that you read it?

Which I would guess is something that many of us could answer when it comes to The Story of Mankind (for me, maybe about two thirds, but it's hard to say because I jumped around so much).

I haven't read all the Newbery winners yet - and some of the ones that seem the least interesting to me are in my unread pile. But out of the fifty-some that I've read, Shadow of a Bull, ....And Now Miguel, and Up a Road Slowly were a few that I would have bailed on if I weren't on a mission to read all of the winners.

I was glad that I'd persevered with all of these, at least, which isn't always the case with some books. With unredeemingly bad books, you resent the author and blame them for the time you wasted and the money you spent. Or you're sorry that the library is counting the fact that you checked that book out as a positive in circulation records for a particular title (I think Daniel Boone is the only Newbery book in that category for me).

I'm curious about which winners the rest of you have tried repeatedly to read, or which of the ones you've read that you really wanted to give up on?