Some apocalyptic stories begin with human folly. Ashfall starts with a catastrophe that no human could ever prevent, the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park. Some authorities think that these supervolcanic events have occurred several times in the course of human history. They may have caused ice ages and may have caused a bottleneck in human evolution. Perhaps humans can predict supervolcanic events in the short term if we notice a rise in seismic and volcanic activity but no human power can prevent them.
In Ashfall, Alex is an ordinary teenager living in a suburb in Iowa. He argues with his mother and likes playing World of Warcraft. He is thrilled when his parents go on a weekend visit to his uncle’s farm 3 hours’ drive away in Warren, Illinois and leave him home alone for the first time.
Nobody suspected that this routine Friday would be the last ordinary day that anyone in America, and maybe the whole world, would ever see. Alex’s house suddenly explodes into flames and all the phones, internet and even the radios don’t work. He goes to a neighbor’s house and for days the world is plunged into darkness as they are surrounded by a noise so loud that they have to stuff toilet paper in their ears and wear headphones to prevent pain. At first Alex has no idea what is going on, but his neighbor connects the crazy events to a short radio news bulletin about a volcanic eruption.
Even when they know what has happened, nobody knows what it means for them in the short term or humanity in the long term. All Alex knows is that he must find his family, so he sets off with cross country skis and a backpack of food. Conditions are terrible as every water source is poisoned and it becomes so cold that it starts snowing in September, but the behavior of people is far worse. Some are kind, together in towns to look after each other, but with civilization collapsing, criminals have no restraints. Alex meets good people like sharp-tongued Darla but also murderous criminals like Target.
Ashfall can be enjoyed as a tense action adventure with fascinating post-apocalyptic problems. Who would have considered that flat-roofed buildings are a terrible choice during a supervolcanic eruption because they may collapse under the weight of the ash? But Ashfall is more than a simple thriller. Author Mike Mullins movingly and realistically portrays Alex’s growth from a spoiled teenager to a strong and mature young man, capable of surviving in the new, harsh world.
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2013 is shaping up to be a very good year for author and illustrator Jon Klassen. Not only did he win the Caldecott Medal for This is Not My Hat, but another book he illustrated, Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, was selected as a Caldecott Honor Book.
Extra Yarn tells the story of Annabelle, a young girl who finds a box of yarn while she is playing outside in the snow. She takes the box home and uses the yarn to knit herself a sweater. After she finishes the sweater, she notices that she has some extra yarn so she uses the yarn to knit a sweater for her dog, Mars. Soon, Annabelle’s sweaters attract attention and brighten her surroundings everywhere she goes. Not everyone is a fan of her sweaters; a local boy mocks her and her teacher says the sweaters are a distraction in class. Annabelle responds by knitting sweaters for everyone in her community, except for Mr. Crabtree who gets a knitted cap. Even the animals and buildings receive sweaters and she never runs out of yarn. News of Annabelle’s remarkable box of yarn reaches an archduke, who has a sinister plan to obtain the yarn.
Extra Yarn is a lovely story that shows how one girl’s simple act changes her entire community. The use of color is one of the most effective aspects of Klassen’s illustrations. Klassen begins with a drab color palette when Annabelle finds the box of yarn, then gradually adds a bright and varied palette as she knits more and more sweaters. Fans of Klassen’s other books will have fun spotting some very familiar faces, all surprise recipients of Annabelle’s sweaters.
Sweet and charming, Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn is bolstered by Klassen’s clever illustrations.
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It cannot be more appropriate for a biography of Hergé, the author of the Tintin books, to be rendered in a graphic novel format using ligne claire, which is French for “clear line,” an iconic style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his. Tintin has been enjoyed by readers for decades, and interest was recently reignited by the 2011 computer-animated film, The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Stephen Spielberg.
Hergé was the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi, a Belgian cartoonist who was born in the early 20th century, and the book, with some artistic license, traces his love of drawing back to his earliest years. Each chapter comprises a vignette covering a particularly notable piece of his life. While the book is presented in chronological order, several years often separate each fragment of life that is portrayed. The result is a thorough, focused story that allows for a smooth flow of narrative without an exhaustive overload of minutia.
A fun aspect of the book, for any reader of the Tintin adventures, is the real-life people who served as inspiration for some of the colorful Hergé characters. Hergé’s father had an identical twin brother, and the two share a scene that immediately calls into mind the comic relief provided by the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson. The back of the book has short biographies for several of the notable people who played a part in the life and work of Hergé. Although I usually skim over parts like this, I found the bios filled with interesting tidbits that perfectly complemented the story itself. One such was the brother of Hergé, portrayed only as a baby in the book, being the evident inspiration for Captain Haddock, due to his habit of using colorful language after a stint in the army.
An enjoyable and absorbing read, recommended to readers of biographies and graphic novels.
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The pigeon receives an unforgettable lesson in politeness in Mo Willems’ hilarious The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?
All the duckling wants is a cookie, and just by asking politely he is rewarded with a large cookie full of nuts. The duckling’s happiness comes to a sudden end, however, when the pigeon spots the cookie. The pigeon asks the duckling how he got the cookie, and is flabbergasted to learn the duckling got the cookie just by asking. An indignant pigeon then tells the duckling all the things he asks for – from driving the bus to his own personal iceberg – but never seems to get. The pigeon’s lamentations finally come to an end when the ducking surprises him with an unexpected act of kindness.
Warm and humorous, The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? is a fun book that gently reinforces the importance of being polite. Willems’ illustrations are simple but effective, consisting of little more than the pigeon, duckling, and cookie set against a plain and uncluttered background. Willems’ dry humor will also appeal to older readers who will sympathize with the duckling’s request at the end of the story.
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The 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.
Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.
This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.
This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.
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Today we have a book about a family that loses a child. Ethan was nine years old when he was taken from his front yard. His younger brother was the only witness. Now, eight years later, Ethan has returned home. Each member of his family, which now includes a six-year-old sister, reacts in different ways. His parents are so happy to have him home, but his brother is angry, confused, and unwelcoming. His sister, too young to know the whole story of his abduction, adapts to him quickly and is much like he was at her age.
Ethan’s homecoming is far from idyllic, however. He is having trouble coping with his new life, which is very different than the one he has known. He has virtually no memory of his life with his actual family, remembering only the life he led with Ellen, the woman who took him. After living with her for many years, she abandoned him at a group home, from which he eventually ran away. He lived on the street for a year after that, before finding his family on a website for missing children. What starts as a happy reunion soon shows the strain of Ethan’s efforts to regain his memories, his reintroduction to friends and family, enrolling in school, and heated therapy sessions.
Ms. McMann’s story is dramatic and well-told.
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Does anyone get out of their high school years unscathed? Free from uncomfortable memories of interactions they mishandled due to their own unnerving awkwardness? If you did, then you will not be able to understand the brilliance of Same Difference. The action in this novel is not about the present existence of the two main characters, but rather of the juxtaposition between their past deeds, clumsy with the emotional over-eagerness of youth, and their current ability to reassess those actions and desires through the lens of their adult experiences and maturity.
Simon and Nancy are two early-to mid twenty-somethings living in Oakland. For Simon, it has been seven years since he graduated high school and he dreads each return to the town where he grew up due to the embarrassment and unease of constantly running into people he went to high school with. Though Nancy teases him, she is just as reserved about her high school experience and fights any invasion of her privacy related to those gawky years. They both know that when you are young you are stupid and lack the experience to deal with the flood of emotions you are faced with on a daily basis. Neither wants their present judged on the transgressions of their past.
Nancy’s meddlesome response to some letters meant for a previous tenant of her apartment serves as the vehicle for a road trip for her and Simon back to Simon’s hometown. There Simon must face people and situations he thought he had long put behind him. I was especially drawn to his conflicted feelings over his meeting Eddie and Jane, two married members of his high school class who used to torment him in their separate and devastating ways. Seeing them walking down the street with one baby in a stroller and another on the way left them toothless and oddly, ordinary. Would you want to hang out with someone who tormented you in high school and called you a nerd? It would seem not, but time is an antiseptic which, if not heals, certainly numbs old wounds.
A winner of the 2004 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, 2004 winner of the Harvey Award for Best New Talent, and 2003 Ignatz Award, this title came to me with high expectations, but it far exceeded them. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and anyone who enjoys a coming of age story in all its painful clarity.
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Written in a similar style to the classic “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” children take off in search of a moose. Their search is complicated by the fact that they’ve “never, ever, ever seen a moose.” The children scrape through bushes, wade through swamps and scramble up hillsides as they try to find a moose. Readers will enjoy discovering the moose hidden in each picture when the children are actively searching for the moose. Careful examination of the oil illustrations will show moose feet, snouts, antlers and other parts hidden behind trees, bushes and rocks. The story is told in a sing-song manner, with some creative rhyming thrown in. Ideal for one on one sharing due to the hidden picture aspect of the story, it will appeal to readers aged three through six.
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Maggie is starting high school. That is a terrifying prospect for anyone, but especially for Maggie because she has, until now, been homeschooled. The youngest of four children, Maggie’s mother taught each of them at home until they were old enough to enter high school, but in Maggie’s case, things are painfully different. Her mother recently left, and none of the kids know why or where she went. The hole left by her mother’s absence remains unfilled as Maggie begins to navigate the emotional minefield that is public schooling.
Her older brothers, Daniel and twins Lloyd and Zander, have already navigated their first day in a new school, but things are not as easy for Maggie. For one thing, she’s a girl, and she’s been used to having her brothers for protection all these years. She slowly makes friends with punk girl Lucy and her older brother Alistair, who seems to bear the burden of past misdeeds concerning Daniel and the captain of the volleyball team, Matt. In case matters weren’t complicated enough, there’s also the matter of the ghost who Maggie has been seeing since she was about seven, but the specter refuses to speak or explain itself.
As with so many high school relationships, there are layers of memories and interactions. People change and grow up and the set of friends you have at the beginning of high school are often not the same as the ones you have at the end. But the inevitability of such breakups doesn’t make them uncomplicated, or any easier to understand for the participants. Maggie is stuck somewhere between factions. She’s not a cheerleader or jock like Matt, nor is she in the drama club like her older brothers. And she’s not really a punk like Lucy or Alistair, though those two serve as her only friends.
I fully admit that my love of graphic novels creates a deep bias, but I love how deep and meaningful emotions can be encapsulated so completely in the ephemeral expressions of characters in this format. The artwork can allow for profound emotions to be expressed without being overly saccharine in character all while incorporating humor to lighten otherwise weighty and insightful realizations about the character of man.
I would recommend this book to readers of YA literature, graphic novels, and coming of age stories who don’t have all the answers nor do they want them handed to them.
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House of Hades is the fourth installment of the Heroes of Olympus series. It starts off promising with a fight. As it continues you see the characters personalities start to change. They start to take on certain roles. The plot twists and turns to bring you through the shocking facts learned. Read if you dare!
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Legend is told in alternating chapters by Day and June.
Day is a boy from the poor part of town. He is wanted by the Republic for a variety of crimes—sabotaging military equipment and supplies; distributing stolen money, food, and medicine to the poor; cooperating with the Patriots, the rebels fighting against the Republic; and killing a young Republic officer. Not all of those charges are true.
June is a promising young Republic soldier. She has no reason to doubt anything about her life in the Republic until her brother is killed. She is given the special order to use any means to capture his killer—the notorious Day. June is good at her job. But instead of finding peace, she begins to doubt much of what the Republic has told her.
I really liked the main characters. Day and June are both good people, trying to do the right thing. But their perceptions of what is the right thing are influenced by their circumstances—either growing up poor and being oppressed by the government or growing up privileged and believing in the government as taught in school and on the huge JumboTron screens.
Lu does a great job creating the dystopian world of the Republic. There are just enough hints that things haven’t always been this way to keep you reading for more clues.
Legend is the first in a trilogy and would be a good read-alike for the popular Hunger Games.
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Mole is content with his life until his friend Emerson causes him to doubt his simple lifestyle. Inspired by Emerson, Mole sets out to collect many things, which he drags along on a string. Mole gathers up “essential things” like a pirate flag and a traffic light, and his newfound possessions are gloriously shown in a huge, fold out illustration. The pictures effectively show Mole discovering that having everything is not all that is cracked up to be. After deciding that living with everything is just too much trouble, Mole decides to return to his simpler lifestyle. The paintings in the story help to subtly reinforce the author’s message that less can sometimes be more. This story will be enjoyed by readers aged four and up.
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I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.
Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.
Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.
Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.
From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which. McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.
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In one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.
The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.
The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship. From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.
Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.
But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems. Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.
In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.
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The retro style illustrations are reminiscent of the 1950s in this story of Harry and his favorite toy, a stuffed horse. The story was written by the nanny of TV star David Letterman’s son Harry. When Harry’s super duper bubble blooper bubble making machine carries away some of his toys, including his beloved Horsie, it is up to Harry to save him. Readers will have fun following Harry’s adventures zooming through space as he tries to rescue Horsie. Was it just a dream inspired by the décor and toys in Harry’s room, or did Harry really fly off in to space to save his friend? Children can read this book and draw their own conclusions. Ideal for children ages three through eight, but certainly enjoyable for all ages, even adults! The nostalgically illustrated story will leave readers with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
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As the song goes, “What a difference a day makes. Twenty-four little hours.” The events of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight take place over the course of just one day. It is a very momentous day for Hadley and Oliver. They meet at the airport, on a transatlantic flight from New York to London. Hadley might never have met Oliver if she had made her original flight. But, in this case, the four minutes she was late made all the difference.
Hadley is on her way to her father’s wedding. He left her and her mother for a job at Oxford two years ago, and never came back. Hadley is still bitter about it, but she has been told in no uncertain terms that she must attend this wedding. His wedding to “that British woman,” as Hadley refers to her soon-to-be stepmother. Add to that her crippling claustrophobia, and she is really dreading this trip. Then she meets Oliver.
Oliver is a British college student studying at Yale. He is also on his way to London for a wedding, and he doesn’t seem any more excited about the prospect than Hadley. He is very helpful in getting her through her fear of flying, however, as they talk the seven hour flight away. By the time they arrive at Heathrow they have formed quite the attachment and, even though they go their separate ways, Hadley can’t help but hope they’ll meet again.
If you’ve done the math, you know that Hadley and Oliver’s flight has only brought us to the seven hour mark of the aforementioned twenty-four hours, so there’s a pretty decent chance their story doesn’t end there. Odds are they’ve probably fallen in love at first sight.
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Unreliable narrator? Check. Quirky characters? Check. Fish-out-of-water? Check. Funny scenes? Check. The Rosie Project manages to push all these buttons, plus add a semi-sweet love story, a bit of a mystery and some academic humor. No wonder it’s been a surprise international hit for debut author Graeme Simsion.
Don Tillman is a genius geneticist, the kind who makes other genius geneticists (and geniuses of all other specialties) look like…well, like me. Part of his success is an ability to focus on the work at hand; part of it is an eidetic memory; part is a determination to win at anything he turns a hand to. But those qualities also add up to an inflexible loner, probably with Asperger’s Syndrome and no idea why he never has a second date.
Stymied by women who smoke, who are never on time, who eat apricot ice cream, are adamant vegetarians, or show any conflicting values, Don decides he’s going to weed out those who are demonstrably unsuited for him. His method? A 16-page questionnaire covering every conceivable idiosyncrasy that might affect his ability to be around that person.
One of Don’s test subjects is Rosie Jarman, a barmaid, smoker, chronically late, pretty and opinionated young woman. Obviously not a match for Don on any count. However, she presents him with a puzzle he cannot resist—the opportunity to collect DNA from a limited but scattered population to find her natural father. The technical part is easy, but he’s intrigued by the difficulty of finding the subjects. Thus begins the Rosie Project.
Simsion perfectly captures the interior voice of a man with Asperger’s, and in multiple comedic scenes demonstrates why Don doesn’t get along with those who are conditioned to follow social conventions (as he sees it), or those who have learned to interpret the myriad of clues that lubricate social interaction (as everyone else sees it). The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster, the Jacket Man Incident, the Pig Trotter’s Disaster, the Flounder Incident, the Bianca Disaster, the Aspie Lecture—all point to Don’s seeming inability to function in public. But gradually, and in small ways, Don learns to look for and interpret, and finally to empathize with, distasteful human emotions.
If this sounds like a formula Hollywood script, it’s because it started as one (a script, that is), but Simsion realized that dialogue alone wasn’t enough to portray Don without making him an object of ridicule. The result of his move to the novel form is a romantic comedy with depth and original characters, and an unsympathetic narrator we quickly come to cheer for. It comes across initially as a light read, but I think readers will remember Don Tillman for quite a while.
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A team of researchers finds something unusual frozen in the ice of an enormous Arctic berg. When they reanimate it, it wreaks havoc on the researchers and breaks loose into the larger world where its existence threatens all of humanity. Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, right? In The Curiosity, Stephen P. Kiernan takes that trope and turns it into a love story, a commentary on modern science, religion, and culture, and wistful insight into days long gone.
Although this discovery was an accident, the search that led to it was not. A private research facility run by the imperious Erastus Carthage sent a ship to search for “hard ice,” which forms so quickly that specimens’ cells don’t have time to freeze. Carthage’s theory is that such flash-frozen animals might be revived with a protocol he’s developed and is working to prove. Who knows what he expects as a payoff, except a Nobel Prize and scientific immortality? Having succeeded with krill, he hopes to extend the lifetime and complexity of the subjects he reanimates.
Then a research team led by Dr. Kate Philo finds an infinitely more complex creature and the stakes of reanimation skyrocket. With painstaking effort under dangerous conditions, Kate cuts the ice surrounding the specimen away and discovers a human body, cells intact, a perfect candidate for reanimation. When the “Lazarus Project” is announced, Carthage and his arrogant team of physicians provoke the critics, especially the religious activists, ensuring ongoing attention from around the world. Relegated to the sidelines, Kate and much of her team become a liability for the project but fight to retain some role. Thus it is that Kate is on hand when Judge Jeremiah Rice regains consciousness and moves from his 1906 drowning to a 21st-century laboratory and an expedition into unimaginable territory.
The judge is still a young man, but dignified and erudite in a way that her peers lack, and Kate becomes fascinated with him. She also recognizes that Carthage is keeping Jeremiah a virtual prisoner, and begins sneaking him out of the lab to see the changes time has wrought. As he recovers strength, their expeditions become longer and more elaborate, their conversations more intimate, and their reliance upon one another more profound.
In the meantime, the world wants to know about Judge Rice and claim kinship with him. He becomes a celebrity, with attendant privileges and loss of dignity he cannot comprehend. The nature of scientific and cultural progress becomes debatable among the team members who show him both the dark and light sides of that progress. And aspects of that progress overshadow the Judge and Kate, as we learn in the opening chapters.
Kiernan brings us the evolving story through the voices of four narrators—Kate, Jeremiah, Carthage, and the odious Daniel Dixon, a second-rate science writer given exclusive access to the project. As the book moves to its inevitable conclusion, each character and his or her changes are illuminated through their voices and through the observations of the others. The cast of supporting characters—especially a computer genius/stoner/Deadhead, a cell biologist, and Carthage’s flunky—flesh out the background.
Kiernan does not use Rice’s voice to condemn modern society or praise the past. His role as a judge gives him the poise to deal with contentious issues and people (of which there are many in this more relaxed time), but he also connects easily with those who crowd around him and finds ready allies wherever he goes. His entries are poignant with both the grief he feels for the world and people he left behind, the naive way he approaches the modern world, and his growing feelings for Kate. (Interestingly, I don’t believe Kiernan ever has him quote Miranda from The Tempest!)
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The novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about a freshman boy who lives on an Indian reservation. His family is very poor. His best friend is the rez bully, but he is very nice to the boy named Junior. Junior goes to a poor school on the reservation where there are not many students that ever do anything with their lives. However, Junior has promise and he wants to do something with his life and get off the reservation and find hope. After an interesting conversation with a teacher on the reservation, Junior decides to go to a school off the reservation where he thinks he will find hope and through a series of ups and downs this novel does a wonderful job of telling the story of Junior’s freshman year.
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Barry has written about Wendell Berry and the Port William Membership in earlier posts, and while I’m usually reluctant to encroach on another WRL blogger’s turf, in this case I must. Full kudos to Barry for introducing me to Berry.
Watch with Me is a collection of short stories centering on Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot, a reticent man proud of his farming skill, but without the need to expand beyond the beautiful and successful farm he can run by himself. The last leaf of his family tree, he doesn’t have the joyfully rambunctious persona that Port William remembers of the Proudfoots (Proudfeet?), but he does have deep feelings whose few expressions become affectionate stories shared among his neighbors. His late-to-wed wife, Miss Minnie, is the pole star of his life, and Berry’s descriptions of their wagon rides together are simple and affecting. Tol has a mischievous side that emerges in one particularly funny tale of deadpan revenge. But the story that gives the collection its name is a tension-filled hike through the mountains and valleys around Port William as Tol and several neighbors try to keep an emotionally distraught man from harming himself. The fact that Thacker “Nightlife” Hemple is eating and quenching his thirst while the followers go without adds a measure of humor, but Berry sustains the suspense.
Berry’s descriptions of Tol—how his clothes are eternally rumpled no matter how well Miss Minnie cares for them, the hair that pokes out in all directions regardless of his grooming, his quiet strength, his steadfastness—are accomplished in brief passages that nonetheless give the reader a lasting impression of Tol. Miss Minnie is better known to us by her actions than her physical presence, so I always thought of a younger Aunt Bee when I read about her.
The narrator relates these tales with an intimacy that pulls the readers in and makes them part of the Port William community, even if only for a short time. The outside world intrudes very little, but Tol and Miss Minnie use their innate grace to recover when it does. Those incidents only serve to remind us that people who are regarded as unsophisticated hayseeds really do have a place in this world, even if it is shrinking.
Check the WRL catalog for Watch With Me.