Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A note to readers

I'm trying to finish a bit of re-formatting and tagging of older posts, which involves re-publishing, so they may show up in your blog reader as new items even though they are not new. Thank you for your understanding and support. (Now, how about some more comments?!)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

It's the first graphic novel to win the Printz Award. While it's certainly worthy, I can't help feeling that the format is what put it over the top, that the librarian judges wanted to seem progressive and hip. (The immigration/diversity theme can't have hurt either.) That said, I don't think the story would work very well without the pictures.

Myth, reality, and fantasy converge from three separate storylines that turn out to be threads of the same narrative. Although the conclusion is a tad abrupt, it's satisfying as well as surprising, and it combines the three elements without seeming forced or unreal — despite the essential unreality of two of the stories. There are some obvious lessons about cultural and personal identity, but it manages not to be too preachy, which might actually be a function of the obviousness. The lesson is explicit, so it doesn't have to be dwelled upon or reiterated.

As far as graphic novels go, this one's easy to read. It uses a straightforward square-panel design, and the illustrations are clean and simple with bright, engaging colors. I tore through it in about an hour.

The format, the humor, and the brevity make this book a good recommendation for "reluctant readers," but I can't help feeling a little disappointed that an award winner doesn't demand a bit more of the reader.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The "God" Part of the Brain: a scientific interpretation of human spirituality and god

by Matthew Alper

I was really intrigued by this book — that is, until I read it. (Well, some of it anyway. I couldn't finish.) I'm really interested in neuroscience and neurophysiology, and I've been thinking about god and religion lately, so I was pretty excited to read this book.

Where to begin? Title, subtitle, and... what the heck is that? Off to the side of the cover, vertical rather than horizontal, there's a sub-subtitle: "a personal journey." So our author is neither scientist nor theologian. He is widely, but not deeply, read. As a result, some of his ideas and interpretations are over-simplified, and the superficiality tends to undermine the cross-discipline synthesis he's attempting.

That said, the underlying concept is pretty interesting. Just as our capacity for language, for example, is tied to certain physiological sites and structures within our brains, and these sites and structures have developed through evolutionary processes, perhaps we have also evolved a capacity to think and to experience the world in spiritual terms. (Now I'm simplifying. This part of the argument takes up a number of chapters.)

OK. Fine so far. So what's the evolutionary advantage of our spiritual capacity? (The author sometimes calls it a "tendency.") The author suggests that as our time consciousness evolved and combined with our awareness of our own mortality, we would have been paralyzed by fear of our inevitable death. And this is where he loses me. I don't get why the fear of death would be so great that proto-humans (or whatever) would be unable to perform the tasks of day to day survival. The author's analogy of a bunny confronted by a mountain lion does not compute. Fear of imminent, violent death is not equal to fear of theoretical, potential, eventual death. (Yeah, any of us could die in the next two seconds, but probably not.) Dragging in our ability to conceptualize infinity (and therefore to recognize our personal insignificance) does not, for me, enhance the fear — or the thesis. Ditto for fear of losing loved ones; it's just not scary enough to make me stop eating.

I soldiered on a bit, but it only got worse. Next the author tries to explain the range of spirituality and religiosity with the bell curve: most people fall somewhere in the middle, but some people are at the extremes. Atheism is the side of the curve where folks have little to no spiritual capacity/tendency. So why aren't atheists acting like terrified bunnies? Why aren't they dying because they're too scared to live? This incongruity further destabilizes the already shaky theory.

And then I quit reading.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


by David Almond

Another young adult book that I checked out ages ago and only recently got around to reading. Although the author is popular — at least with librarians and award-givers — I had no problem renewing the book repeatedly, so the kids weren't exactly champing at the bit.

It's a bit of an odd story. It borrows heavily from Jewish folklore (the legend of the golem) without ever mentioning Judaism, and it's set in what seems like the '50s or '60s against a background of Catholic versus Protestant animosity without being in Northern Ireland (rather, it's in northwestern England). Even setting all that strangeness aside, I'm not sure for whom the author is writing, cuz I don't think too many teens are going to connect with this story. It manages to seem old-fashioned without actually dating itself very clearly. (Unlike Black Swan Green, a book by another English author that is set in the indirectly specified recent past but manages to seem timeless. Also unlike Almond's Printz award runner-up Skellig, which was weird and supernatural in a positive way.) It also does that thing where it jumps right in to the story and the reader is supposed to figure out the setting and get oriented by picking up little clues and cues; authors seem to think this terribly clever, but the technique is rarely deployed effectively, in my experience. No offense meant to teens, but if I found it hard to assimilate the dialect and social context, it won't be easy or fun for young adults.

Anyway, it isn't horrible (mercifully short, more like it), but I wouldn't recommend it. The ending is kinda slapdash, and the themes are much more effectively explored in Skellig.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Burn Journals

by Brent Runyon

It's kind of weird, given the subject matter, to say I was excited about this book — but I was. I first heard this young man a year or two earlier on "This American Life" talking, with surprising humor, about how he had attempted suicide by self-immolation, survived, and recovered (as much as one can from something like that).

The book, as you might guess, is based on the journals he kept during the many months he spent in hospital, chronicling his physical and emotional recovery process. While I give the book high marks overall — it's very readable, even for teens who don't read a lot, despite appearing to be kinda thick — I was a bit disappointed in the pre-burn portion of the book. I mean, I realize it's difficult to put intense emotions into words, but I just wasn't feeling it in the lead up to the actual suicide attempt. Not to be harsh or anything, but it sounded like a bit of a lark: got in trouble at school again, parents'll be mad, maybe I'll just set myself on fire. (See this earlier post for more evidence of my inability to empathize.)

Good nonfiction recommendation for teens, especially those who like to read true-crime and/or true-trauma books in the vein of A Child Called "It". Another sort of similar book I'll be blogging at some point is Sickened: the Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood.