Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller

The Lost Crown is a well researched historical novel about the final years of the Russian Imperial family before they were all murdered in 1918 by the Communist revolutionaries. The story is told in the voices of each of Tsar Nicholas II's four daughters, Olga, Maria, Tatiana and Anastasia.

The novel opens describing the idyllic and somewhat sheltered life of the Russian royal family in June of 1914. The only time the family's life is disturbed is when Aleksei, who is a hemophiliac, injures himself and bleeds uncontrollably. In August 1914, war breaks out in Europe. To Tatiana it makes no sense. Russia takes the side of the Serbians, meaning her people will have to fight Austria and Germany - the mother country of the Empress Alexandra. How can they fight their cousins?

In Catherine Place, across from the Imperial Palace, a lazaret (infirmary) is set up for the wounded soldiers who are brought in by train to Tsarskoe Selo. There the Empress and her daughters tend to the soldiers. Tatiana is proud to earn her Red Cross nursing certificate and is a competent nurse. Her older sister Olga, however, has great difficulty coping with the gore and the intense suffering of the soldiers.

At first the soldiers are thrilled to have their Empress and her daughters care for them. But as the war stretches on and more and more Russian men are chewed up in the conflict, there are murmurings against the Tsar and his German Empress. Perhaps the German-born Empress is a spy?

When the war goes badly for Russia, Nicholas II assumes command of the Russian army, even though he is only a colonel in the army. As more and more men die and the impoverished nation sinks further into dissent and mutiny, the Tsar decides to abdicate his throne in an attempt to quell the peasant uprisings. Sadly this is only the beginning of the end.

The Imperial family are imprisoned in their palace at Tsarskoe Selo, after most of the royal regiments desert the family. At this time the Duchesses are ill with the measles. Colonel Kobylinsky, commandant of the new palace guard at Tsarskoe Selo tries his best to protect the Tsar and mitigate the actions of the Bolsheviks. The Tsar and his family meet the head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky who decides that Nicholas and Alexandra must be separated from each other and their family until they are questioned.

As the revolution progresses, the imperial family is moved from Tsarskoe Selo to Tobolsk in Siberia. There they are restricted to living in an old "mansion" which is repaired for them. They are not allowed to visit the town nor to have contact with anyone.

The Lost Crown is in some respects a fascinating and detailed read about the last years of the Imperial family of Russia. There is no doubt that Sarah Miller researched her subject matter very well. There's lots of attention to detail and creative imagining of conversations between family members. She is able to convey as sense that the Romanov's were a caring, tender family, if not naive and completely unaware of the seriousness of their plight.

The entire novel is permeated by a deep sense of tragedy because of course, the reader knows the outcome for the Tsar and his beloved family. It is a foreshadowing of the brutality and horror that all of Russia, as it evolves into the communist Soviet Union, will sink to during the next 70 years. However, because the reader likely knows how this will end for the family, there is no real suspense to the novel, only a fictional telling of the family's last days alive in captivity.

Although the author has opted to write this novel in a very ambitious way, through the voices of all four of the Duchesses, I felt this didn't contribute much to the story nor enhance the way it was told. At times it was difficult to discern little if any difference in the voice of one Duchess from another. This along with the random alternating of who was telling the story made it difficult to remember who was narrating at any particular time without referring back to the beginning of the chapter. I think the novel could have been written just as effectively using only the voice Olga or perhaps Olga and Tatiana instead of all four sisters.

The back of the novel has an extensive Epilogue with black and white pictures of the family, an author's note and also information on further reading. The Lost Crown is one of several recent books on the Imperial family of Russia including Anastasia's Secret by Susanne Dunlap. For those readers who would like a more serious historical fiction, Miller's book is the better of the two. It takes it's subject matter more seriously and it has the backing of detailed research into the Romanov family and Russia.

For those wishing to explore the Russian Imperial family further Sarah Miller recommends the website, which appears to have extensive digital reproductions of primary source material.

Book Details:
The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller
New York: Simon and Schuster Children's Publishers 2011
412 pp.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Three Musketeers: Movie Review

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas is one of literature's best known and greatest stories. The novel's plot is quite complex and full of intrigue and suspense. It tells the story of d'Artagnan, a young man who travels from his home in Gascony to Paris to seek adventure and hopefully join the Musketeers, a group of guards formed to protect the King. Enroute to Paris, D'Artagnan is beaten, robbed and has a letter of introduction to the Guard of the Musketeers stolen by the Comte de Rochefort, an agent of Cardinal Richelieu.

When he arrives in Paris, D'Artagnan manages to stumble into duels with three of King's Rroyal Musketeers, Athos, Aramis and Porthos. These three are down on their luck when D'Artagnan happens upon them. When all three musketeers show up for their respective duels, they are surprised to learn they are all fighting the same man - D'Artagnan. All four men are attacked by Cardinal Richelieu's men and a sword battle develops, which the musketeers and D'Artagnan win. Richelieu's men are driven off and Athos, Aramis and Porthos, impressed by D'Artagnan's courage and skill welcome him into their company.

All four musketeers become involved in political intrigue in the royal court, intrigue which involves Atho's ex-wife, Milday de Winter and D'Artagnan's new love, Constance who is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Consort.

The Queen is having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham and as a token of her love, she gives him a diamond necklace. Cardinal Richelieu, an adviser to King, is really a traitor. He wishes to start a war between France and England and usurp the throne. He suggests to the King, Louis XIII, that he hold a ball and request his Queen wear the necklace, knowing full well that she no longer has it in her possession. The Queen asks for the help of the Musketeers who travel to England to try to retrieve the necklace from Buckingham. It eventually falls to D'Artagnan to get the necklace. Richelieu's agent, Lady de Winter tries repeatedly to kill D'Artagnan and in the end, gets her own just reward.

The latest movie adaptation, is really quite different than all the previous movies. Anyone hoping for a true rendition of the book would be sorely disappointed. This movie is pure fun and entertainment, and sticks to only the bare bones of Dumas'novel while being packed full of well known actors and introducing some outlandish twists.

Matthew Macfayden (Pride & Prejudice) plays Athos, Orlando Bloom is the Duke of Buckingham, Milla Jovovich is Lady de Winter, Mads Mikkelson is Rochefort and Logan Lerman has the role of D'Artagnan. The movie is full of handsome men, beautiful costuming, special effects and was shot in 3D.
For the first time, Orlando Bloom had the role of a villain in a movie and he didn't live up to expectations. His acting seemed overdone but without any real effect. He seemed unable to convey anything but a sense of one-upmanship. He was handsome in the period costumes but there was absolutely no sense from the storyline that he was ever involved with the Queen Consort. Instead, Mikkelson comes up as the true villain in this movie as he tries repeatedly to kill D'Artagnan. He has the looks, the bad-ass attitude and the sword play to go with it.

This adaptation adds a somewhat "steampunkish" look to both the storyline and the cinematography. The opening scene in which Athos (Macfayden) appears out of a canal to attack the Richelieu's guards looks like something out of a sci-fi movie or even Mission Impossible. The "windpunk" theme (since steam wasn't yet invented) comes from the addition of wind-powered flying ships that were designed by Leonardo da Vinci who supposedly hid the plans in a vault. The Musketeers initially steal the plans for the ships with the help of Lady de Winter who as double agent, then dupes the Musketeers and steals them back for Buckingham. Buckingham will then use the plans to create an advanced armada of ships. At this early point in the movie, it becomes apparent that this will be a very different Musketeers.

There's plenty of well choreographed sword fighting, some of it in slow motion and epic air ship battles, a la "Pirates of the Caribbean". Unlike the 1974 version with Michael York, The Three Musketeers is clean and has little overt violence. People get killed but there isn't much gore. At times the movie suffers from a poor script, particularly for D'Artagnan, played by Logan Lerman. His lines are awkward and at times even redundant and silly.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie adaptation. I went to the movies to be entertained and Three Musketeers succeeded in that respect. This movie had a lot of potential and good ideas that simply weren't explored to the depth necessary to make it a really good adaptation.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis

The Killing Sea is a novel I've wanted to read for some time now. In fact, I've taken it out of my library several times but never gotten around to actually reading it! So recently I gave it another go, and I discovered Lewis has written a surprisingly good novel about a difficult topic - the 2004 tsunami which killed an estimated 250,000 people.

The story opens on the day before the tsunami, December 25, 2004, with an American family, the Bedford's on vacation in the small harbour town of Meulaboh. They have stopped in the port to have the engine in their small chartered sailboat repaired. Ruslan who lives in Meulaboh, understands English and sends them to his father Yusuf who is a mechanic. Once their sailboat is repaired they sail out of the harbour and anchor for the night off the coast of Sumatra.

Meanwhile, Ruslan, who is a talented artist, cannot forget the deep blue eyes of Sarah Bedford. Ruslan lives with his father in the village. His father, appreciative of Ruslan's artistic gifts, plans to send him to arts college in Jakarta.

Early the next morning a magnitude 9.2 earthquake hits the area, just offshore. Sarah and her family feel the quake as a dull but deep thud. They know immediately that they are in trouble because the reef they are anchored near is drying up, the water receding quickly out to sea. Their sailboat, the Dreamcatcher is trapped, aground and as they look out to the ocean, to their horror they see a wall of water coming towards them. Sarah, her father and mother and younger brother Peter abandon the boat and try to make it to shore to the safety of the hills. It is a race against time, they have little chance of winning.

Sarah and her brother Peter survive the tsunami, but Peter has been injured by swallowing water and needs medical attention. Sarah's and Peter's journey becomes one to find help for Peter.

For Ruslan, the quake hits Meulaboh shortly after he finishes breakfast. When he runs to the waterfront to check on his father, he like others in the town gasp in wonder at the receding water. For reasons, unknown to Ruslan, he begins running away from the ocean as fast as he can. He stops at his home to grab a shirt and sandals and tries to outrun the oncoming black water. But soon he is cut off from every point of escape. His only option is to get to the top of a house and ride out the flood. Ruslan watches in horror as people he knows drown or are crushed in the black refuse-choked waters. He survives but does not know the fate of his father. Eventually Ruslan learns that he went to visit relatives that day in the Calang region. So his journey is to find his missing father.

The story is told in the alternating voices of Sarah and Ruslan as they journey first separately and then together towards safety and reuniting with their families. Chapters often end with some kind of tension that is resolved in the next chapter narrated by the character.

Lewis deftly demonstrates to his readers how the physical disaster combined with the political turmoil and Third World character in the Banda Aceh region contribute to the suffering of the people after this catastrophe. Items we take for granted in wealthy Western countries, such as antibiotics, fever medication and even doctors, simply do not exist in poor underdeveloped areas like Aceh.

Lewis incorporated much of what he learned about this tsunami from working as a volunteer in Aceh after the disaster into the novel. He spoke with survivors and refugees and this helped him in the crafting of his story.

Book Details:
The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis
New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2006
183 pp.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

"The strong can eat bitterness, stomach the suffering,"

Frances "Fei Ting" Ching lives with her mother Gracie, in a small, one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. She attends St. Elizabeth's, a private Catholic school along with Theresa Fong, her best friend. Frances took the SAT last year and obtained a mark of 1050 while Theresa got 1350. This puts her at a disadvantage applying to universities and her mother is very disappointed because Frances' mom has her entire life planned out for her; Frances must get into Berkley and get straight As. Frances can then attend medical school, become a doctor and make an excellent wage. Then Gracie can quit her job and Frances will be able to cure her mother of her stomach ailment. It's the perfect plan in Gracie's mind because her needs and desires are the same as those of her daughter's.

While showing Frances the family's jewelry one day, her mother makes Frances promise to undertake this plan. It is their "pact". However, things begin to go awry, when Frances is mistakenly placed into speech class instead of calculus. Ms. Taylor, the young teacher in speech, makes Frances feel excited and special, something Frances cannot envision happening in calculus class. The idea that language is powerful and that it can define a person and be used to persuade and influence is very appealing to Frances. This is partly because Frances is caught in an emotionally abusive relationship with her controlling self-centered mother.

Although she intends to correct the scheduling mistake, Frances cannot quite make herself do this. She loves speech, it is empowering and she seems to have an aptitude for it. As the deadline for course changes passes, Frances realizes she has in fact, made the decision to stay in the class. Frances knows that her mother will be furious and never accept her having taken speech over calculus, so she enlists best friend Theresa to help her keep speech class a secret from her mother.

Ms. Taylor encourages both Theresa and Frances to join the speech team, which means they will have to compete in speech tournaments. Around the same time, Frances begins attending a Princeton Review class in preparation for the SAT. During the first class, Frances meets a boy named Derek Collins whom she forms an instant bond with because he sticks up for her. In a strange co-incidence, Derek shows up at Frances's first speech competition as a competitor.

After a few Princeton classes, Frances doesn't return because they conflict with her practices for an upcoming speech competition. This now means that Frances will have to hide more from her mother and cover her tracks better. It means Theresa will have to cover even more for her.

During her first competition, Frances meets Derek again and it's obvious he likes her. But Frances isn't allowed to date boys. So now, she must also hide her friendship with Derek from her mother too. What begins as a small secret, now spirals out of control with Frances living a double life - that of a dutiful, brow-beaten Chinese daughter in the presence of her mother and that of a vibrant, confident teenager with a vision of her own life away from home.

Even though Frances is very successful in her first competition, when her mother learns that she is taking speech and not calculus she is furious. She physically attacks Frances who is made to beg forgiveness from her mother. Her win, instead of placating her mother, makes Frances mother even more controlling and manipulative in ways that are truly heartbreaking. But Frances begins to discover more about herself and who she is through her speech competitions, which act as a sort of therapy for her and also help her to understand just what her mother is doing to her. This allows her to fight back. She begins to realize that she must make a hard choice.

'It's like choosing whether to cut off one's right hand or one's left hand. It is like having to decide whether to save your drowning mother, knowing that you may both drown, or swimming to shore alone, knowing that you can only save yourself. If that is your dilemma, which way is right? Which way would you choose?'

Cara Chow has written a poignant novel about a young girl's struggle to live her life on her own terms and to be true to herself. Bitter Melon is one of numerous books written about Asian teens struggling to cope with manipulative mothers. In light of the recent publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it seems to be an attempt by Asian women to confront the problem of mothers (and fathers) who push their children to the absolute limit using almost any means possible to attain academic success and ultimately, status.

While Gracie Ting is portrayed as a dragon mother, Ms. Taylor is the exact opposite - a mentor and a young woman who encourages Frances to consider her options and think for herself. She acts as a "corrective lens" though which Frances can view herself and her world. She is a true mentor for Frances, encouraging her to apply to several colleges, not just Berkley and to think about what SHE wants to do with her life.

Through Ms Taylor, Frances is introduced to some ideas that she has not been previously exposed to. For example, the idea of unconditional love is brand new to her. Ms. Taylor tells her and Theresa that their mothers will love them regardless of how they place in the speech contest.
"That's the first time I've ever heard the idea of unconditional love outside the context of religion....the idea that real live parents could be unconditionally loving is completely foreign. Often Mom and other Chinese parents say 'dai sek'. 'Dai sek describes children who are polite or affectionate, who excel in school, who serve their parents before themselves at banquets, or who send money back home. How can anyone be loved not for what they do but for who they are? Isn't who you are defined by what you do?"
Of course, this is not Frances' experience of love at all. It seems she is only loved, like other children of Chinese parents, if she achieves. And more importantly, if she achieves what the parents desires for the family.The notion of unconditional love is very foreign to her until her best friend Theresa and her boyfriend, Derek, both give her that experience by loving her despite her many flaws.

The title of the book, Bitter Melon originates from a part in the book where Frances and her mother are eating a bitter melon during dinner. Frances does not want to eat the melon but her mother tells her, "If you eat bitterness all the time, you will get use to it. Then you will like it." This is a metaphor for the troubles of life, for hard work, and for doing things we don't like or want to do. While it's true we all must do things we do not like, or that there are things that happen to us that we don't like, in reality, Frances's situation is much different. Her "bitterness" comes from swallowing what her mother wants for her again and again. It is a result of her mother's complete lack of understanding that what she wants is not the same as what Frances wants. It is Gracie's bitterness spilling into Frances' life.

Although this book might seem a little over the top in terms of some of the actions of Frances's mother, I feel it's probably close to the mark. It seems young Asian writers have a message for their parents and all parents; we must allow our children the freedom to choose their lives. As parents, we can only direct them, not control them. They will make mistakes and not heed our advice, but in the end, those mistakes can be opportunities for growth and wisdom.

Book Details:
Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
New York: Egmont, USA    2011
309 pp.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Yet another wonderfully intriguing story from the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
In Wonderstruck we follow two separate stories that eventually merge into one. The first story begins in 1977, in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota with Ben Wilson who has just lost his mother in a car accident. He is living with his aunt and uncle in their house which is eighty three steps away from the house he lived in with his mother. Likely because his mother has just died, Ben who feels alone in the world, wonders about his father, whom he knows nothing about. Does he know about Ben? Where is he now?

When Ben sees a light on in his mother's house he decides to investigate. While searching through his mother's bedroom, he discovers a book, titled Wonderstruck published by the American Museum of Natural History inscribed with the message, For Danny, Love M. He also finds a book mark from Kincaid Books which has a handwritten message dating back to February 1965. With these two clues, Ben embarks on a remarkable journey to find his father.

This story is alternated with a second story told entirely in pictures. Set in Hoboken, New Jersey, 1927, it is about Rose, a deaf girl who lives in a house with her father and keeps a detailed scrapbook on a very famous actress named Lillian Mayhew. Rose is very, very lonely and one day runs away to the city to see her mother who only comes home to visit once a month. But her mother is not interested in seeing her and Rose ends up fleeing to the American Museum of Natural History where her brother works.

Gradually the Selznick weaves a story that ties all of the lose ends together while giving the reader some clues that encourage and entice us to try to figure out the connection between Ben and Rose.

Wonderstruck is a brilliantly conceived novel that melds together an interesting narrative with gorgeous pencil drawings in a graphic novel style. This story will appeal to young readers, especially boys who are reluctant readers as well as older readers who have enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The back of the book contains a detailed Acknowledgement section in which Selznick outlines the origins of some of the ideas in the book.

Book Details:
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Canada 2011
639 pp.

Monday, October 17, 2011

She Touched The World by Sally and Robert Alexander

She Touched the World tells the story of deaf-blind pioneer Laura Bridgman. Laura was born December 21, 1829, a "delicate plant" of a child to Harmony and Daniel Bridgman of Hanover, New Hampshire. Although prone to some type of "fits" for the first two years of her life, these disappeared and she developed into a bright, inquisitive two year old. However, in February 1832, Laura and her older sisters, Collina and Mary became ill with what was thought to be scarlet fever. Both Collina and Mary died, while Laura lingered for weeks with a high fever that destroyed her sight and her hearing, as well as leaving her without the ability to taste or smell. Laura's world now became one without light or sound. She was unable to develop the ability to talk or interact with her brothers and parents.

Being a child with a strong sense of curiosity, Laura began to explore her home by touch. She learned to identify everything in her home and on the farm by touch and stayed close to her mother. Laura soon learned to knit, braid, iron, churn butter, sew, set the table and bake. However, she was often left alone because her parents had many chores and responsibilities.

When a professor, Dr. Reuben Mussey learned about Laura he came to the remarkable conclusion that Laura was teachable and very desperate to learn. This was a most unusual view to form about the disabled in the early 1800's because they were considered unteachable. When Dr. Mussey published a piece about Laura, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind saw it and was interested. He visited Laura and immediately wanted her to move to Boston to live with him and his sister.

On October 12, 1837, Laura left her home in New Hampshire and moved to the Institute in Boston. Although initially deeply upset, Laura soon began to adapt. Howe assessed Laura and determined that she was totally blind but understood the difference between light and darkness. Her sense of touch was remarkably well developed to the point that she recognized people by the touch of a hand. Laura was also sensitized to people's moods, being able to tell their mood by touch. Although Howe tried to teach her to speak, he was unsuccessful. But it is probable that Laura could have been taught to speak. Howe decided though that it was possible to free Laura from her prison and that she could learn to communicate with the world around her.

Sally and Robert Alexander outline Howe's method to teach Laura the names for objects and how using Howe's method she was able to develop language skills. Laura learned language at the age of eight, just before it became too late for her brain to develop this skill. It is now believed that children must learn language before puberty if they are to be able to communicate properly. But at the time Laura lived, this wasn't yet fully understood. Gradually Laura developed the means to communicate with people and her natural inquisitiveness helped her to make great strides in learning.

She Touched The World is a fascinating account of how one man open the possibilities for the disabled and how one very determined young woman demonstrated that given the right training, there were many possibilities for the disabled to live full productive lives. There are many black and white pictures of both Laura and the important people in her life as well as samples of her writing and needlework. This book is an excellent account of someone young Canadian's might not have heard about. One of the authors, Sally Hobart Alexander lost her sight at the age of 26 and also is partially deaf as well.

Book Details:
She Touched The World. Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer by Sally Hobart Alexander and Robert Alexander
New York: Clarion Books 2008

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

Every triumph from patience springs, 
The happy herald of better things...

Thirteen year old Zulaikha lives in the village of An Daral with her father, his second wife Malehkah, her fifteen year old sister Zeynab, her 19 year old brother Najib, and her half brothers Khalid and Habib.  Her mother is dead (we learn her fate later on in the story) and her father's second wife is not kind to her. Zulaikha's life is hard. Zulaikha has had the misfortune to have been born with a cleft palate. This disfiguration makes it difficult for her to eat and speak and has opened her to taunts from adults and children alike. Zulaikha not only feels disgusting and ugly but also shame.

The story opens with the arrival of American troops into the village of An Daral. Initially, many of the people are  afraid of the Americans whom they consider shocking and ignorant in their behaviour towards Afghani's, but they also have hope for the future. Zulaikha's father and brother are welders and they are soon hired on by the American's to build their base. This means the family will have money to improve their lives.

For a teenage girl like Zulaikha however, life isn't really all that different from the days before the Americans arrived. She doesn't attend school and she spends most of her time doing chores and running errands for Malehkah. One day Zulaikha meets Meena, a middle-aged widow who was a professor of literature at the university in Herat before the war with Russia. After the war, during the Taliban years, Meena ran a clandestine study group for men and women who loved literature and the ancient Afghan poets. Zulaikha  learns from Meena that her beloved mother adored the great Sufi poet, Jami and his famous poem, Yusuf and Zulaikha.  Zulaikha remembers her mother teaching her to read but because her mother died when she was four years old, she can only remember a few words. Meena tries to entice Zulaikha to learn, telling her about poets such as Firdawi, Jami, Hafez and Abdullah Ansari. When Zulaikha asks her to teach her to read, Meena agrees. In order to practice the words and alphabet she has been taught, Zulaikha, practices writing in the dirt - hence the title of the book.

Things are about to change even more for Zulaikha though. She is taken by her father and brother to meet the Americans who have seen her and who want to help her by having an American Army surgeon repair her facial deformity. Zulaikha meets Captain Mindy Edmanton, a medical officer who takes a picture of her mouth. For Zulaikha, it is her greatest wish come true. Could it be possible that these soldiers who have come to fight the Taliban would also want to help her? To her it is incomprehensible.
Events continue to move swiftly along with Zulaikha's Baba deciding to marry off his daughter, Zeynab to the Abdullah family to form an alliance with a wealthy family and thus raise the status of his own family. Zeynab will be the much older Tahir Abdullah's 3rd wife. It is a decision that has terrible consequences for Zeynab and breaks the heart of both her father and Zulaikha. As the family prepares for Zeynab's marriage to Tahir, Zulaikha learns that she will go to Kandahar to get her cleft lip repaired.

When she returns from her surgery and after discussing her future with Meena, Zulaikha decides that she would like to study in Herat. Her father does not want initially agree to this. He believes it is not the place for a woman to be educated. The American's have brought strange ideas with them. Zulaikha finds an ally in Malehkah who hopes for something better for the young women of Afghanistan.

Words in the Dust does a good job of exploring a number of issues related to Afghanistan as well as portraying life there to young American teens. Among the issues explored are the American role in Afghanistan, the cultural differences between Afghanistan and people from the West, man-woman relationships, the role of women in Afghan society, and the rights of women. Younger teens should be forewarned however, that there is a graphic description of the burn injuries of a young Afghani woman in the book. Older teens may find the frequent quotes from the poet Jami's work, Yusuf and Zualikha fascinating and want to read parts or all of the poem. This work can be found in partial form online here.

Trent Reedy, who was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard was called up for active duty in Afghanistan in 2004 and spent a year serving overseas. While overseas, he became convinced that he would love to write books for children. Upon his return to the United States, Reedy received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Words in the Dust is based on a true event that occurred while he was in Afghanistan.

Book Details:
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
Arthur A. Levine Books  2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Shattered by Melody Carlson

Cleo is almost eighteen and a senior. She and her friend, Lola, want to attend a Christian concert in the city, at the Coliseum. Cleo is hoping to drive her father's car to the concert, but Cleo's mother is having none of it. When Cleo balks, her mother offers to come with her and Lola, sacrificing her own night out at her best friend's bachelorette party. Cleo doesn't want her mother to do this. She wants to go with her friend, not her mother. This concert is special to Cleo and Lola because it is Lola's last day in  the city. Lola's parents divorced last summer and  her mother Vera, is taking a new job in San Diego.The concert is one last time for Cleo and Lola to do something together before Lola moves.

Cleo is completely frustrated because her mother will not allow her any space to try new things and spread her wings as a young adult. She feels that her mother is suffocating her. But no matter how much she argues or tries to convince her mother of this, she will not let go.

"There will always be something," I say a bit too loudly. 
"There will be car wrecks and epidemics and murders and all sorts of horrible things happening all over the planet, Mom. But that does not mean they'll happen to me. Don't you get that? Someday you will have to let me go!"

Upset at her mother's suffocating ways, Cleo decides to plan to attend the concert without her mother's knowledge. If she can't drive,Cleo decides she and Lola will take public transit to the concert. Although Cleo feels guilty about disobeying her mother and lying to her, her desire to be more independent overrules her feelings. When she and Lola arrive at the concert, Cleo pushes aside her feeling of guilt and tries to enjoy herself. After the concert they arrive safely home and Cleo decides she will confess to her mother what she did in the morning. Cleo never gets that chance because, incredibly,  her mother is killed in a carjacking outside the Coliseum that night!

From the messages left on  her phone, Cleo learns that her mother returned home early and when she found Cleo and Lola gone, she drove to the Coliseum to pick them up. Her mother arrived early and while driving around waiting for the concert to end,  she was carjacked and murdered. Cleo concludes that if she had not disobeyed her mother and gone to the concert, her mother would be alive today. Cleo truly believes she is responsible for her mother's death. It is her darkest secret that she will never reveal to anyone. She is overwhelmed with grief and pain and in order to cope with this pain Cleo begins taking tranquilizers. Cleo becomes addicted to the prescription drugs and is soon buying drugs from a local dealer.

But there are several people in Cleo's life who are there to help her - her mother's sister, Kellie, who arrives shortly after the tragedy. Although Cleo treats her with disdain at first, calling her "slightly functional"  and tries to push her away, it is Kellie who is Cleo's saviour. Eventually things spiral downward to the point that Cleo is hospitalized. Her Aunt Kellie confronts her regarding her addiction based on her experience with her brother Kevin. She discovers Cleo's secret and helps her move forward with her grieving, encouraging her to experience the pain of her mother's death and telling her that she is not responsible for what happened to her mother..

Cleo also meets a guy from her school who expresses a sudden interest in her and it is this relationship that provides some of the impetus to get well. Daniel Crane is the boy she's been infatuated with since her sophomore year. He's not only a natural athlete but he's good looking and kind to Cleo.

To be honest, I found the plot of Shattered bordering on melodramatic and stretching credibility. Cleo's mother was highly dysfunctional and it was understandable that Cleo would try to break free of her mother's suffocating grip on her life. Cleo goes out for the first time in her life and her mother is murdered - making for a very contrived and almost unbelievable plot. In most normal families, what would be happening the night of the concert would be discussed well before the date. In the case of things happening last minute, Cleo's mother could have driven her daughter and her friend to the concert. She could have picked her up afterwards. This is what normal parents do if the circumstances are such that there is a safety issue. It's what I do. It's what my friends do. But most of the time our teens go as a group to something such as concert.

It is interesting that in the front page of the book, Carlson indicates that "some of the anecdotal illustrations in this book are true to life and are included with the permission of the persons involved. All other illustrations are composites of real situations, and any resemblance....." While this may be true, I think many teens would find it hard to identify with the potential lessons in the book, given the strange circumstances they are framed within. I believe framing these issues under such extreme circumstances, detracts from the goal of the book and that of the publisher NavPress which as stated in the front of the book is "to helping people grow spiritually and enjoy lives of meaning and hope through personal and group resources that are biblically rooted, culturally relevant, and highly practical."

Despite the ridiculous turn of events, there are some good issues that can be discussed with teens; helicopter parenting, teen independence, obedience, lying, prescription drug abuse and family life.

Book Details:
A Daughter's Regret. Shattered by Melody Carlson
NavPress 2011
199 pp.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry Part II

In Part III The Tinderbox, John Barry demonstrates how America's mobilization for war allowed for conditions that were conducive to the spread of viruses and the development of not only epidemics but also possibly a pandemic. America's entry into World War I brought about significant changes in all aspects of American society. Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States was not a man to do things by half measure. He claimed that the nation needed to be trained for war. He wanted to ensure that everyone supported the war effort. Speech was controlled, as well as the mail and a new Sedition Act was passed that made opposition to the government in any form unlawful. Much of national life was controlled.

Wilson decided to call up all men between the ages of 18 to 45. This meant that military barracks would see men crammed into buildings designed to hold far fewer men. It also meant the mass mobilization of workers into cities and lodgings which were often shared in shifts. Mobilization for war meant that America was stripped of its best and brightest medical professionals, often recruited directly from graduate schools. Barry writes that during this time, the quality of medical care for civilians deteriorated rapidly. By the end of the war, there were 38,000 physicians serving in the US military. The military also took as many nurses as it could find. There was no contingency plan for the general population; if the civilian population became ill there would not be enough medical professionals to care for them.

William Gorgas, Surgeon General of the Army was deeply concerned about the possiblity that mass mobilization would result in epidemics of disease from so many men living in close quarters. The deepest concern was with pneumonia which exists in endemic form (meaning it is always present in the general population). The Government ignored the warnings of medical professionals in placing so many men in close quarters.

"These circumstances not only brought huge numbers of men into this most intimate proximity but exposed farm boys to city boys from hundreds of miles away, each of them with entirely different disease immunities and vulnerabilities. Never before in American history -- and possibly never before in any country's history -- had so many men been brought together in such a way...
Gorga's nightmare was of an epidemic sweeping though those camps. Given the way troops moved from camp to camp, if an outbreak of infectious disease erupted in one, it would be extraordinarily difficult to isolate that camp and keep the disease from spreading to others. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, could die."

Barry gives a fascinating account of how America mobilized for war and the enormous effect mobilization had on society. he also recounts how the US military grappled with so many men packed into cantonments. Measles epidemics raged through the army barracks and with it came pneumonia. Forty-six of all deaths were due to pneumonia as a complication of measles. A Canadian physician, Oswald Avery who worked at the now pre-eminent Rockefeller Institute was sent to work on this problem. Public health and military officials as well as physicians knew that it was pneumonia that would kill the majority of people if there were an epidemic of any kind.

John Barry also describes why researchers were so keen on learning all they could about pneumonia, often called the captain of death. Pneumonia is often a secondary illness that sets in after the initial infection has already weakened the immune system. It is still a leading cause of death today. Many people succumb to pneumonia after being sick with influenza.

"Influenza causes pneumonia either directly by a massive viral invasion of the lungs, or indirectly by destroying certain parts of the body's defenses and allowing secondary invaders, bacteria, to infest the lungs."

Since 1892, scientists have tried to find a cure for pneumonia by making a serum to treat it. Researchers began by discovering many types of pneumonia-causing bacteria. Oswald Avery, Rufus Cole and Alphonse Dochez studied this problem and had some success in treating patients with a serum. They categorized pneumonias into Type I, Type II, and  Type III which were the most common. Research into the use of a serum suggested that it could raise survival rates significantly. At this time, pneumonia was considered the "captain of death" and was largely untreatable.

 Outbreaks of influenza in early June 1918 were mild and were not as dangerous as the measles outbreaks in the military had been. Their concern over influenza was due to the fact that people died from complications due to pneumonia rather than from the influenza itself. To prevent the spread of illness due to influenza, Welch, Cole, Vaughan and Russell were convinced that special measures were needed. These included the creation of contagious-disease wards or separate contagion hospitals that dealt only with cases of the disease. They also felt that segregating all new troop arrivals in Europe for 10 to 14 days might contain the spread of any contagious disease to the new troops.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On The Volcano by James Nelson

Katie MacDonald lives with her father Jack, in the fictitious Great Territories, on the slopes of a volcano. Her father and her mother fled to this isolated area of New Pacifica when rebels attacked towns near to where they were previously living. Katie's mother died, shortly after the move and she and her father have lived on their own for many years in a log cabin that he built. Katie's world is small; consisting of her father and his friend, Lorraine who drops by to help with work. Her dream is to accompany her father on one of his infrequent trips to Badwater for supplies. Her father reluctantly agrees to let her accompany him on his next trip to Badwater, with the stipulations that she wait until she is sixteen and that she dress as a boy named George to avoid attracting attention.

Despite these precautions, Katie as George, does attract the attention of two boys whom she ends up fighting. When 17 year old Jess Starkey is beaten by Katie he doesn't forget the humiliation, as we discover later on, to horrifying consequences. During their time in Badwater, Jack and Katie also meet the sheriff, Sheriff Benson and his Deputy, Adam Summerfield. Katie is immediately attracted to tall, handsome Adam.

Upon their return to their home on the slope of the volcano, Katie and her father resume their life but soon discover that things have changed. One day while hunting pheasant, Katie finds a man's glove in a pine grove. Not long after, during the summer, Katie has a surprise encounter with Jess Starkey that turns ugly and ends terribly. In a life and death situation, Katie's father comes to her rescue with the result that their lives are changed forever. They now realize that the peaceful existence they once knew is gone and that this will bring more people to their volcano. When Jess Starkey does not return from his trip up the volcano, this sets in motion an sequence of events that bring both tragedy and happiness to Katie.

While I enjoyed the beginning of the book and the way the plot was initially developing, my feelings changed after Jess Starkey's death. The book's unique setting and the hint of tragedy and romance made it initially very appealing. However, after Katie's encounter with Jess, I felt author James Nelson took the story in a disappointing direction that was increasingly violent with both murder and lying becoming the norm for the two main characters as well as the two supporting characters. And these actions seemed to be done with little compunction and not much internal conflict. It was as though they felt they had little choice but to do what they did.
I thought about it. I had killed a man. I, Katie MacDonald, an otherwise nice enough person, had hunted another human being like an animal. I'd figured out his path, hidden, waited for him, surprised him, killed him. Put an arrow through him just like a deer.
Could I have let him walk away?
I didn't see how.

I felt there were other choices Katie and her father could have made that were wiser, more honest and more in tune with the way the author had initially developed their characters  in the novel. They were portrayed as peaceful people who simply wanted to live their lives in a simple manner. Jack MacDonald abhorred the violence that was encroaching on his life in Little Fish and so he moved far away so as not to be a part of it. They both respected all living things and killed only the animals they needed for food.

Instead we see Jack as a man who lies to cover up a murder and thus sets the example for his daughter Katie, to do the same. He does this despite recognizing that the Sheriff is a very understanding and intelligent man who likely has an idea of what has happened and who might understand the circumstances. Perhaps that is why Jack never reveals to Sheriff Benson the truth - he knows what happened and as the law he has decided not to proceed further.

I found it particularly disturbing that Katie could simply move on with her life, without much thought as to what she did.When questioned by Sheriff Benson,  Katie doesn't offer him the truth, although she calls it that - she lies and she knows it.

"Technically, that was the truth. I didn't follow him around the trees. But in my heart I knew I was lying. I didn't follow him around the trees, because I followed him a deadlier way."
The author seems to suggest that because it's probable Sheriff Benson knows the real truth behind what happened to Ben Starkey,  this makes what happened fine. The reader knows the Starkey's were violent, bad men and so does the Sheriff who represents the law. And as the law, he has decided to leave things be. Justice was done. By our standards today, this seems immoral and unjust. Certainly Katie in her own mind, feels completely justified in her actions and the book ends on an almost "happily ever after" tone.

On The Volcano has a unique setting -- a cabin on a volcano in a western setting. The smoking volcano is a symbol of the violence that is an undercurrent in  their lives - just waiting to erupt. The plot is also unusual for a young adult novel in that it focuses on a young girl in a western setting who is involved in series of tragic events but who overcomes these obstacles to find happiness and love.

I am not familiar with any of James Nelson's previous works, all non-fiction. On The Volcano is his first young adult novel, published at the astonishing age of 91! That in itself makes this work unique.

Book Details:
On The Volcano by James Nelson
New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons    2011
272 pp.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Fox Inheritance by Mary Pearson

The Fox Inheritance is the second, long overdue sequel to the excellent The Adoration of Jenna Fox. In The Adoration of Jenna Fox we followed Jenna as she adjusted to her new life as essentially a type of cyborg with a human brain. Jenna, along with her best friends, Kara Manning and Locke Jenkins, had been in a horrific car accident. Her body had been destroyed but her human brain had been uploaded first to a special computer and then to a body made of Biogel and composed of many biotic parts. This was done by her father, Michael Fox, a research scientist. Jenna was better than human and capable of living very very long - several hundred years.

It is now 260 years since the accident that "killed" Jenna and her friends Locke and Kara. We discover that Locke and Kara's families had been told that they died. However, unknown to their families, their brains had also been uploaded into a special computer. Although Jenna thought she destroyed the computers containing her friends brains, in fact copies were made by Dr. Ash of Fox BioSytems when the project was abandoned. He also retrieved tissue specimens and DNA from Locke and Kara before their bodies died. This was done illegally and unknown to their families.

When Ash died under mysterious circumstances, the uploads and specimens were forgotten in a storage facility and came to be known as the Fox Inheritance. Those boxes changed hands over the course of several generations.

As the battery docks began to run out of power, the storage facility sold the boxes to Dr. Gatsboro, several centuries later.  Dr. Gatsboro restored their bodies with a special technology that allowed him to achieve a perfect likeness. He used their DNA to engineer their tissue in order to create their unique identity. Instead of the original Bio Gel, Locke and Kara have "an oxygenated gel filled with microscopic bio-chips" which "communicate and human cells do."

The Fox Inheritance opens exactly one year after Locke and Kara have been uploaded into their new bodies. Kara and Locke are living in Gatsboro's compound, being educated in the new world they now inhabit and also being groomed for display. Dr. Gatsboro plans to use them as floor models to sell his process to potential clients who want to extend their lifespan.  Locke and Kara were used as part of Gatsboro's reserach and were important because their minds had been in storage for 260 years. Potential clients wanted proof that their minds would be intact decades later, maybe longer.

Angry at what Dr. Gatsboro has planned for them and also at Jenna Fox for abandoning them for hundreds of years, Kara decides to runaway from Gatsboro's compound. Locke, seeing no other option, decides to run with her. Locke however, is concerned about Kara, who doesn't seem to be behaving normally. She is intensely angry and seems to have a cruel streak.
 "And I'll tell you what I can't believe, Locke! I can't believe someone was able to buy my mind and then put me on display like I'm a trained monkey! I can't believe he's allowed to keep me here against my will! I can't believe Jenna has been living the high life while we've been crammed into a box and forgotten for over two hundred years! I can't believe I'm never going to see my mother or --"

Locke and Kara are helped to escape by Dot Jefferson, a Carbot - essentially a robot that is embedded into a car. After a run-in with Gatsboro where they are almost captured, Lock is separated from Kara. Locke begins to wonder what is wrong with Kara. He doesn't remember her being like this. Perhaps her mind being alone for so long in the datasphere has damaged her in some way. When Kara and Locke get separated, it becomes a race to see who will find Jenna first. For Locke, it is about protecting Jenna. For Kara this is about revenge.

Locke learns that Jenna is living in California and so he begins his journey there while Dot and Meisha, who worked for Gatsboro try to lead the mad doctor away from  Locke and into Mexico.

From this point on, the novel details the escapades of these two 20th century teens caught in a futuristic world as they try to locate their friend Jenna. Along the way readers are treated to descriptions of American society 260 years into the future.

The United States experienced a second Civil War in 2112 which divided the country into two new countries, The Democratic States of America and the American United Republic. Citizens could choose which country they wanted to live in. "A few citizens would not conform to the new "pact" and refused to choose. They were labeled Non-pacts and excluded from all public services" including education. Eventually these citizens became very poor. Bots were created after the workforce was severely depleted due to starvation and disease arising from a catastrophic volcanic eruption in Yellowstone. And humans with less than ten percent body parts were labelled illegal.

When Locke finally meets Jenna, he finds a very different person than the one he knew 260 years ago. Jenna was married to a man named Ethan for seventy years. After his death Jenna had a daughter, Kayla, who is 100 percent her and Ethans, by a surrogate. Jenna has been living a quiet existence, although she tried to lobby for the rights of Bio Gel recipients. Her friend, Allys and 40 other Bio Gel recipients had the the new standard of 10 percent adopted.

Locke loves Jenna but she tells him it isn't the right for them. Jenna tells Locke that he needs to experience the world and they have both changed. Jenna has told him that if he's still interested, she will be waiting for him after he discovers who he now is what he wants in life.

Although this novel was not as interesting as the first book which really works well as a stand alone, it does generally succeed. Pearson accomplishes what she wanted to with The Fox Inheritance - that is to tell us what happened to Jenna over the course of several hundred years and fill us in on Locke and Kara (who we thought died in the first book). We learn about the future world Locke and Kara have been thrown into, and see the tremendous adjustment both Locke and Kara are called to make. They have new bodies and are living in time that is completely alien to them.

The character I liked the most was Dot Jefferson, who is a driver for Star Drivers and who is a Bot - a robot. She has no legs and no human shape below her waist because her functionality does not require this. Dot is a driver and is therefore wired directly into the vehicle she operates. Since Bots are robots in human form, they can be used by humans for many different jobs in society.

Dot agrees to help Kara and Locke because she wants to be like some of the other Bots who have stories to share about escapees. It soon becomes apparent that Dot has "desires". She is not just a robot. Dot like many bots seems to be something more than just a robot.
Training? Or is it programming? What's inside of Dot that is beyond her control? Everything? She's a Bot. I have to remember that. But there is still something different about her. Is that possible? Can a Bot be more than just circuits and programming? I think back to the hissing cashier at the diner -- a Bot too, but as different from Dot as I was from my brother. Where did their Bot paths diverge on the assembly line? Or was it somewhere after that?....
In this futuristic world, Bots seem to have the desire for more, to be human, to be whole, even to be accepted. This is in contrast to mankind, some of whom in the quest for immortality, are tending towards having a fabricated body. In this respect, The Fox Inheritance continues to explore the question of identity; "Who am I?" and "What is it that makes me, me?". Even Locke, the narrator, is trying to figure out who he is. Is he still Locke? His body is different, more muscular and he's much taller than he was when he had a human body.

Overall, The Fox Inheritance is a good novel to explore themes of identity, immortality and what it means to be human. One of the main problems I had with this novel was that because the first novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox was written 3 years ago, I couldn't remember some of the finer details of the storyline. It appears the Pearson will be writing a third novel because Father Andre tells Locke that

Book Details:
The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson
New York: Henry Holt and Company 2011
294 pp.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Attraction of Jane Eyre

I just came across this small piece on Jane Eyre by Caroline Moynihan who writes for MercatorNet, an online magazine that is based in Sydney, Australia. Moynihan discusses possible reasons why so many are attracted to this novel and the many movie adaptations. there have been at least 9 English movie adaptations.

To the left, it a new edition of the book with its cover done in the style of book 2 of the Twilight series, New Moon. I don't like this as a cover for Jane Eyre, but it's definitely a marketing ploy to attract teens to the novel.

Here's an interesting tidbit from the article:

There is one thing about Jane, however, that today’s audience might find challenging. She is a very moral young woman. Not in a conventional sense; she has her creator’s vehement dislike of hypocrisy, especially when it is used, as her Aunt Reed and the loathsome Mr Brocklehurst use it, to oppress vulnerable children; and she believes it is more moral, however it looks, to go to India as St John’s sister-co-worker than as a wife in a loveless marriage. When the man she does love, however, turns out to be married (though the victim of deceit) she rejects his proposal to run off to France and live together anyway, though her heart is breaking.

And that is because Jane is not only instinctively virtuous but because she is religious, a Christian (of an ill-defined stamp), on all important points the mouthpiece of Charlotte Bronte, the clergyman’s daughter and Victorian Englishwoman. She not only dreams and draws inspiration from nature, including the best in human nature (Helen Burns, Miss Temple), she consults her conscience, she prays and seeks God’s will in her struggles, she forgives the Reeds their ill-treatment of her. Her story ends with a paean of praise for the “good and faithful servant” of Christ, the man who is not accidentally called “St John” Rivers. But don’t expect to find that in the latest movie.

Now go read the rest of it!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Anything but normal by Melody Carlson

Anything but normal is the first book of Melody Carlson's that I've read.Carlson is a well known author of teen fiction that explores issues from a Christian perspective. In this book it is the issue of teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy that is explored.

Sophie Ramsay is a 17 year old student entering her senior year in anticipation of having a great year. Sophie  met Dylan Morris at the camp they both worked at during the summer. He told her, her spirit and commitment to God were what attracted him to her. And indeed Sophie was committed to God - she had made a pledge to remain chaste until she married. Now at the end of the summer, Sophie feels deep pain and humiliation. Dylan said he would call her when he returned but never has. When Sophie attends an end of summer get together, where Dylan's family is, she realizes by his behaviour that their summer romance is over.

When she overhears her friends at school discuss guys and how Dylan is the type of guy who would respect a girl whose taken a pledge to remain chaste, she feels betrayed. Sophie knows Dylan isn't that type of guy at all. She struggles to come to terms with breaking her pledge and her guilt. But Sophie fell for his smooth talking and now she's a girl in trouble.

At first, Sophie's response to her situation is denial. She will simply pretend she's not pregnant but underneath she feels fear and hopelessness. When she sees an Unwanted Pregnancy ad at the school, she decides to check out the local clinic, even though she knows abortion to be wrong. At the clinic, Sophie wonders how she was not able to get an Advil at school for menstrual cramps without her parent's consent, but now could obtain a surgical abortion as a minor without her parent's knowledge. When Sophie says she wants an abortion, strangely the counselor suggests that adoption is an option. Not able to get an abortion that day, Sophie abandons the idea.

During this time Sophie attracts the attention of Wes Andrews who is genuinely concerned for her and who thinks she's cool and smart. He asks her to the homecoming dance and because he's so nice, Sophie agrees. While no one is aware of her predicament, Sophie manages to snag the coveted position of chief editor of the school newspaper. It is her writing for the newspaper that Carlson uses as a voice for a discussion on teen pregnancy.

Sophie needs to write an op-ed and decides to write a piece on teen pregnancy and how teens should not be sexually active because they are not mature enough to accept the consequences of such activity, namely becoming parents. When the piece creates controversy within the school, Sophie is confronted by the head of the school teen pregnancy center, who challenges her to visit the center. Sophie is surprised that there are so many girls and that they are from all different backgrounds. So she writes an article about the teen pregnancy center that is published on the front page. This further ignites the controversy and moves it into the community. Sophie finds that she must confront her friends' preconceived notions about the girls who get pregnant, all the while hiding her own condition.

Eventually Sophie decides that she can no longer hide her pregnancy. She feels like she is living a lie. She tells her family and friends, some of whom have difficulty reconciling her actions with the person they know her to be. However, when she tells Pastor Vincent what really happened he is appalled by Dylan's behaviour, mainly because Dylan professed to having a strong faith and a reputation that was respectable. In fact, he took advantage of Sophie and was quite willing to let her suffer the consequences of his actions, alone.

Sadly Dylan represents a lot of young men today, men who use young girls and then abandon them. His true character is revealed in the meeting between Dylan and Sophie's families.

Carlson pulls no punches in letting her readers understand some of what Sophie endures - the fear of discovering an unplanned pregnancy, the denial of the situation, the humiliation of being abandoned by a guy who tells you he loves you just to have sex, the embarrassing gynecological exams, the pain of delivery, the feelings of loss and sadness at giving up your baby, the judgement of friends and family. It's all there but not overdone.

Anything but normal deals with many issues including how many girls are pressured into early sexual activity by manipulative boys, the issues of abortion and adoption, birth control, attitudes towards pregnant teens and the role of abstinence in preventing pregnancy.

Overall I felt Carlson succeeded in presenting these issues in a balanced manner. Sometimes Sophie's voice seemed too mature, particularly when she was observing attitudes in the clinic. The clinic worker presenting the option of adoption seems improbable based on research and anecdotal evidence. Health and abortion clinics tend to promote abortion as the only choice.

I plan to read more of Melody Carlson's books. Readers need to be aware that she does write from a strong evangelical Christian point of view. This is not a drawback but it does affect the overall tone of the book.

Book Details:
Anything but normal by Melody Carlson
Grand Rapids: Revell Publishing  2010
254 pp.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Alzheimer's disease was an entirely different kind of beast. There were no weapons that could slay it. Taking Aricept and Namenda felt like aiming a couple of leaky squirt guns in the face of a blazing fire....Right now, everyone with Alzheimer's faced the same outcome, whether they were eighty-two or fifty, resident of the Mount Auburn Manor or full professor of psychology at Harvard University. The blazing fire consumed all. No one got out alive.

Dr. Alice Howland is a thoroughly modern, middle-aged professional woman. A brilliant, psycholinguist, she is the William James Professor of Psychology at Harvard University where she studies the mechanism of languages.But something isn't just right.

For Alice it begins with forgotten words during lectures, a moment in Harvard Square where she has no idea where she is nor how to get home, a forgotten trip to the airport to catch a plane to a conference she'd spent the day preparing for, and names on to-do lists that mean nothing to her.

Suspecting that something is seriously wrong, and without the knowledge of her husband, John, Alice goes to see her doctor who refers her to a neurologist. After testing, Alice receives the stunning diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. It is both numbing and terrifying for her. She is 50 years old.

Alice struggles to tell John, who is a cancer cell biologist, because telling him will make it all "real". When she does, his reaction is almost cerebral and clinical.At first reluctant to believe her, John offers Alice no comfort. Instead he tells her he needs to find out more about Alzheimer's.

They decide to have Alice undergo genetic testing, which if positive, would support the clinical diagnosis, but if negative, would not necessarily rule it out. When genetic testing confirms her diagnosis, Alice and John must now come to terms with her disease, what this will mean to them as a couple and individually, and the implications for their three adult children who are at risk. After John and Alice tell their children, two decide to undergo genetic testing.

As part of coming to terms with her illness, Alice must decide what it is that she wants most in the time remaining to her. Alice feels at this point, that her career at Harvard is far down the list and that she would also like to spend more time with her husband and family. She also feels that "...when the burden of her disease exceeded the pleasure of that ice cream, she wanted to die." And so Alice develops a plan to deal with that point in her life.

Told in Alice's voice, Still Alice follows one woman's journey into the world of progressive neurodegenerative disease that is Alzheimer's. It is a journey that at times evokes strong visceral reactions especially when we are shown how painful Alice's loss of memory is to her family. These moments are present enough that they give us a realistic view into the world of Alzheimer's. The heartache of seeing Alice, at times so blissfully unaware of her loss, is countered by the loving response of her family in these moments. But we also experience Alice's confusion and anger when her symptoms flare. Alzheimer's is a disease that won't wait.

The reader also learns a significant amount of information about Alzheimer's disease. Information is sprinkled throughout the book as Alice's family confronts her diagnosis and deals with the many issues that result from her disease - for example, medications and home care. There is much information on current treatments and drug regimens (current to 2008/2009 when the book was written and published). Some readers might find this tiresome,  but I believe that this contributes to the novel's overall success.

Since the two main characters, Alice and John are brilliant scientists and two of their  children are also in the field of medicine, the discussions are naturally cerebral and scientific. These characters allow the author the liberty of doing inserting a great deal of medical information. When Alice goes in for genetic testing we learn that there are three gene mutations that a person can be tested for - APP, PS1 and PS2. Without going into too much detail, the reader is given some essence of the ramifications of genetic testing for Alice and her husband, and their children. The reader is allowed to formulate their own ideas on the usefulness of genetic testing and what having those results might mean for family members.

I feel that one of the main themes the author, Lisa Genova has touched upon in Still Alice, is that of quality of life in terminally ill persons. Still Alice is a novel that presents the lives of those with Alzheimer's as being worthy and having meaning - even when their world narrows and especially when in the present they can't foresee such meaning in the future. In a culture in which preconceived notions of "quality of life" are benchmarks for assisted suicide and euthanasia, Still Alice offers the idea that we just can't know what life will be like and how we will feel until we get to that point. This is theme is explored in the novel through the actions of Alice both before her disease has progressed and when a crisis occurs.

*spoiler alert*

Not long after Alice has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she decides that when her disease develops to a certain point, she no longer wants to live. She programs into her Blackberry, five very basic questions which she will answer every morning. She decides that when she can no longer answer these questions she will follow the instructions in a file named "Butterfly" on her computer. The instructions are to take an overdose without telling anyone. So Alice has a preconceived notion of what her life will be like, of what her "quality of life" will be like at this point in time. It is something though that she really can't know until she arrives at that moment in her life.

Instead it is other circumstances that propel her to try to commit suicide. John is offered a job at the University of New York, which he decides to take, despite Alice's worsening health. This will mean moving Alice from everything that is familiar to a strange and new city. When his family challenges him on this, he refuses to back down. Alice realizes that she has made many sacrifices for John and she has made it easy for him to love her,  but when it is time for his love to become sacrificial he is not interested. She decides she must make the "sacrifice". Fortunately, she does not succeed.

Instead, with the help of her daughters, Alice stands up to John, remains in Boston. her youngest daughter, Lydia stays with her. When John who must know about the "butterfly" file which was on her Blackberry and on her personal computer asks her if she still wants to be here she says yes. As Still Alice demonstrates, when Alice is long past her predetermined "criteria" for a happy and worthy life, she is still happy and feels intense love! She can still find things to live for - her daughters, her grandchildren.
She didn't need to go anywhere. She felt lucky  about this. She and the woman she sat with listened to the girl with very long hair play her music and sing. The girl had a lovely voice and big, happy teeth and a lot of skirt with flowers all over it that Alice admired.
Alice hummed along to the music. She liked the sound of her hum blended with the voice of the singing girl.
Genova's use of the butterfly motif both in the naming of the suicide file and in the image of the butterfly on the cover and the butterfly motif on each page of the book is significant to the story and the issue of quality of life. Alice wears a beautiful blue art nouveau butterfly necklace that her mother gave her. When Alice was a small child she cried over the fact that the butterfly, although very beautiful, had such a short lifespan. Her mother however, felt that a short life did not mean a tragic one. The life of the butterfly was still beautiful as it moves from flower to flower. In Alice's mind, she will be like the butterfly - she will have a short life but it will beautiful.

I have to say that I found at first that I liked neither Alice nor John. Alice was too cerebral for me and much too modern. She was a woman whose life work was her passion and who seemed d  and John never seemed to show Alice much comfort. However, as the novel moved forward, Alice's disease made them more human and more compassionate. Lisa Genova was adept at portraying the conflict John experienced when offered an exciting new position at a different university and his responsibilities to Alice as a caregiver and husband. But I felt that he largely abandoned his wife to the care of their daughter Lydia. It was Lydia, Alice and John's youngest child and the one who had a difficult relationship with her mother, who had great compassion and care for her mother. Alice's disease brought their relationship back on track.

Still Alice is fantastic book for book clubs, teens interested in reading adult books dealing with specific issues and for those interested in realistic fiction. There are so many issues, especially identity and loss, that can provide fodder for discussion and debate.  It was Lisa Genova's debut novel. I may partake of her second novel, Left Neglected, despite Publisher's Weekly's snarky review.

Book Details:
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Toronto: Gallery Books 2011
327 pp.