Monthly Archives: January 2008

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah

 Ishmael Beah was born in 1980, which makes him just two years older than A Long Way GoneI am. He was twelve years old when his home in Sierra Leone was invaded by rebels, most of his family presumed dead; he spent the next few years traveling with one group of friends, then another, trying to find food and shelter and escape the notice of the rebels– until, when he was still only 15, he was recruited into the national army. What follows is a mercifully short tale of drugs and violence, followed at length by Ishmael’s rehabilitation and journey to the US.

As the memoir of a teenager who was put into extraordinary circumstances and tells the story of his own experiences, this book reminds me of Come Back to Afghanistan, one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. Like the former book, this isn’t notable so much for its literary qualities as for the insider’s perspective into a world we wouldn’t otherwise see, as well as a wealth of information. But it has a wisdom, an honesty, that Come Back lacks; Beah is a good writer, and can really evoke the details of the life he lived. (Thankfully, he does tend to skimp on the details when they get too graphic).

It’s a dark book, certainly, but I’m glad to have read it.  


Tamar, Mal Peet

TamarIt’s the rare YA book whose plot focuses on those who are no longer teens; once the main character’s in college (with a few exceptions), it’s automatically an adult book. So it seemed odd to me that the book starts with a hundred pages of Dart (this is a code name) and Tamar (also a code name) working with the Dutch resistance in 1945. They must be young men, but they’re not that young, and their concerns are distinctly adult ones. There’s no reason this shouldn’t have been published as a young adult novel.

 Except for the other storyline, the other main character, and that’s Tamar’s namesake, a 15-year-old girl living in England 50 years after these events; after her grandfather’s suicide, she finds a box left to her containing maps, a crossword puzzle, money, an identification booklet, an old picture. As she searches for what these all mean, so do we.

These two plotlines, the YA and the not-YA, sit uneasily beside each other. They seem like they ought to be from two different books. They’re two different good books, mind you, with a lot of powerful moments; and while I hate twists at the end, the one here is quite effective… still, I can’t help but think that it’s not really a young adult book.

The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, 2007 edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s  long-running antholoYear's Best Fantasy and Horror (2007)gy of the year’s best fantasy and horror has  been, for me, one of the most reliable sources for really good fantasy fiction.  For the last couple of years, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have taken over the fantasy side from Terri Windling, and I’m happy to say that they keep up the anthology’s high standards.

If you happen to like the editors’ taste in stories.

You can’t quite take this for granted. The stories in this collection lean heavily towards the literary/slipstream/weird edge of the genre, and I think fans of traditional epic fantasy might not find much to suit their tastes.  But there’s still a tremendous amount of variety in plot, setting, and style; you can read it almost straight through without getting a sense that the stories are all alike.

I enjoyed nearly all of the fantasy, and appreciated most of the horror. I don’t really read horror, but some of the stories are superb.

In “First Kisses from Beyond the Grave,” the hero ends up going to the same high school as his dead best friend, a high school for the dead; it takes some tired elements and turns them into something unexpectedly tender. “Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery” is silly, wacky, but with a human heart inside. “The Night Whiskey” is gorgeous, haunting, a juxtaposition of nostalgia and anxiety. “Another Word for Map is Faith” has an absolutely startling premise and runs with it; it’s about cartography, but don’t let that scare you off.  “A Siege of Cranes” and “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire” are two of the stories that fit more closely, perhaps, with the traditional boundaries of genre fantasy–but both stories are way at the far-out inventive edge, and Ysabeau Wilce’s writing in the latter makes me think I should’ve picked up Flora Segunda months ago. “Halfway House” and “Drowning Palmer” are two more standouts in a collection that, really, is almost all standouts.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, Peter Cameron

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To YouEveryone compares this one to Catcher in the Rye, which is interesting to me because I haven’t read Catcher, and I think I would hate it, and yet I completely see why the two books are compared, and I loved Someday This Pain

James has too many advantages to have the problems that he has. His family has money, an apartment in Manhattan, a part time job at his mother’s gallery, and he’s been accepted to Brown for next year (though not Harvard, Yale, or Columbia). His parents are divorced (though whose aren’t, these days?); unfortunately, his mother has just seen the end of her third marriage after a disastrous Las Vegas honeymoon. And James himself is not doing too well. The narrative voice has a kind of iciness to it, so it takes a while to understand just how sad and frightened and lonely James is; but you see him searching for old houses in the midwest. He does not want to go to college. He wants to sit in his old midwest house and read novels. And, more than anything, he wants to correct people on what they say. It’s what he spends the entire novel doing. They misuse words; they’re not precise enough. His father asks him whether he’s gay. His mother asks him whether he’s gay. He debates the nature of the question with them until, defeated, they accept a change of subject.

James is gay. He deigns to tell us this on page 192, of 228. His fear of intimacy is so great that it extends even to us, the readers.

However, this isn’t a novel about being gay. That may have something to do with how sad and frightened James is, but as James himself admits, he is so far from approaching another human being that his sexuality is two hundred percent theoretical. If anything, it seems symptomatic; James cannot face anything about himself.

This seems to me like the kind of novel I should be ready to criticize for being whiny and emo. Yet somehow it isn’t. I want to use those words they say book critics should never use, like delicate and luminous. James’s voice is stiff and awkward enough that it never reaches that emo-whiny level; you can see the clever swagger on the surface, and you can also see the sadness lurking underneath. And at the same time, there are these moments of description that go way beyond a mere insightful detail; they bore right through to James’s state of mind.

The cover tells you everything you need to know about this book: stark, pained, compelling.

A 2008 TBR

(To be read)

Briefly compiled from the award lists (mostly) and other sources of buzzworthy youth books in 2007. All together now: you haven’t READ that yet? No; I haven’t read that yet.

Sis, Peter – The Wall

Curtis, Christopher – Elijah of Buxton

Freedman, Russell – Who Was First?

Thompson, Kate – The New Policeman

Downham, Jenny – Before I Die

Schmidt, Gary – The Wednesday Wars

Selznick, Brian – The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Brooks, Martha – Mistik Lake

Dowd, Siobhan – A Swift Pure Cry

Hemphill, Stephanie – Your Own, Sylvia

Lanagan, Margo – Red Spikes

McCaughrean, Geraldine – The White Darkness

Tarshis, Lauren – Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out Of A Tree

Knox, Elizabeth – Dreamquake

Wilce, Ysabeau – Flora Segunda

Woodson, Jacqueline – Feathers

Bernier-Grand, Carmen – Frida: Viva La Vida!

Willems, Mo – There Is A Bird On Your Head!

Polly, Matthew – American Shaolin

Ruff, Matt – Bad Monkeys

Clarke, Judith – One Whole and Perfect Day

Jenkins, A.M. – Repossessed

Beah, Ishmael – A Long Way Gone

Jones, Lloyd – Mister Pip

Landy, Derek – Skullduggery Pleasant

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

This happens to be the book that finally taught me how to spell dilemma.

We have, Pollan says, a crisis of food in this country–where diet books are bestsellers and no one ever loses any weight, where we can eat anything we want and no one kThe Omnivore's Dilemmanows what to eat. Butter’s bad for you, eat margarine! No, margarine’s bad for you, eat butter! Meat’s bad for you, eat fish! Wait, fish has mercury in it! And, more than that, we don’t know where our food comes from. Or, we do: it comes from Food Lion, in a box. And before that? Well.

So Pollan goes on a quest to eat trace four meals from their origins to the table: fast food, ‘industrial organic,’ ‘beyond organic,’ and hunter-gatherer.

The meat of this book is Pollan’s look at the industrial-agricultural complex, which is built on a foundation of corn; which is itself built on a foundation of government subsidies, and chemical fertilizers, and ultimately, a whole lot of fossil fuel. You think a Hummer is bad? What about a Big Mac, or asparagus in January?

It’s a seriously scary book, beautifully written, thought-provoking, knowledgeable, tracing connections between things you’d never have thought to connect. But I’m ultimately a little disappointed that Pollan’s handwringing can’t move beyond personal action. The problems of industrial agriculture and fast food and food culture are not (as Pollan totally acknowledges!) personal moral problems. They are systemic problems. Yet Pollan denounces the system without seeing any way to change it – besides growing and gathering your own food, something that’s a little beyond most of us.

That’s a small thing. It’s a fantastic book, and almost a necessary one.

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