Monthly Archives: April 2010

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

The Chronicles of Prydain is a young adult staple series.  The books have been nominated for and won awards in the world of children’s literature.  They have been read widely since their publication in the 1960s.  After reading Taran Wanderer, the fourth and penultimate book of the series, I have a deeper understanding of why the books are so well-regarded.

Our tale picks up with Taran a little older than he was when we left him.  He has realized his feelings for Eilonwy are romantic, and wishes to marry her.  There’s only one problem — how does an Assistant Pig-Keeper get the courage to propose to a princess?

Taran has no idea of what his parentage is.  He sets out on a quest to find out who his father is.  Adventures ensue.

The special thing about the adventures is that, wherever he goes, Taran proves himself to be a mature young man.  He acts with honor and honesty, fights only noble fights, and seeks peace and belonging where he goes.  He makes a place for himself wherever he ends up through his good actions.  He earns himself a dozen “parents” along his path, one so desperate that he lies about being Taran’s father.  Yet Taran, like all teenagers, needs to find and realize himself; only when he gets to the end goal of his journey does he realize the truth.

This is a different book from the others.  Taran is in a very different head space, already knowing right from wrong, and able to restrain himself.  Alexander has crafted a storyline that is much closer to traditional stories and myths in Taran Wanderer, and the result is pleasant.  It retains our familiar characters while giving them room to show us that they are more than they were at the beginning through the use of variants of often-invoked archetypal plot lines.  I found the twining together of our hero’s tale with folktale elements comforting.  Alexander does a masterful job of making the traditional plots and Taran’s story one, and produces something wonderful for his effort.

Rating:  5/5.

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The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg

I’ve read All Over But the Shoutin’.  I’ve read Ava’s Man.  And now I have read The Prince of Frogtown, the most recent book Rick Bragg has written about his family and childhood in the rural Deep South.  I am heartily glad he has continued to write these personal books, because he has gotten so much better.

This particular book is about the life of his father, Charles Bragg, who was a charming but somewhat feckless man.  A veteran who was scarred by the Korean War, Charles changed, going from a man who was sweet toward his children and wife into an alcoholic who frightened and abandoned them.

Bragg writes with frankness about his father, having to learn much about him from other people — his mother, his relatives, and men who were Charles’ friends.  Due to the fact that Bragg had relatively little information, I think he did a better job writing about him in a dispassionate manner.  He is able to reflect upon his father’s actions and see the mistakes as clearly as the endearing things he did.  He was forced to contemplate his father in a way he did not have to do with his mother and his maternal grandfather, respectively, in his previous two books.

The big thing that makes The Prince of Frogtown special, however, are the corresponding stories about his relationship with his stepson.  They are funny, they are sad, they are frustrating, embarrassing, and very real.  In those stories, with Bragg’s struggle to understand a child whose background is so different from his own so apparent, and his wish to be able to shape and guide him without having an adequate model for being a father, is strikingly apparent.  Their relationship is a good one, but is one that needed much guiding and instruction from Bragg’s wife and his stepson.

This was the part that pulled on me the most.  I’ve read three books by him now; this is the first time I have felt compassion for him.  I rue that he did not have a father who was a model of good parenting, someone like his grandfather Bundrum.  I could say that the reason this book is the best of the three is that the voice is clearer, without the at-times cloying spelling and hokey colloquialisms that would pop up in the narration of the two previous books, but it’s more than that.  For the first time, Bragg trusts us and bares some of his soul to us.  This makes him more human than either of the other two books did, where he kept the reader at arm’s length by using uncomfortable language and never letting us see his personal life in a meaningful way.

I loved that he’s let us in.  Let us hope that he has more to show us in the future.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Oh, back to Prydain and the usual cast of characters.  I can’t get enough of Lloyd Alexander’s imaginary land; these books are timeless with regards to the quality of the story.  The lessons they impart and the plots they follow are at once familiar and fresh.  They are, in one word, delightful.

I actually liked The Castle of Llyr better than the last one, The Black Cauldron.  This book, rather than being a story about sacrifice for the good of all, is more about the exploration of relationships.  Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but the development and growth of the children from Caer Dallben is just as interesting as the fighting of battles for the fate of the people.

We are introduced here to some new characters, most notably Prince Rhun, a bumbling young man who, to Taran’s dismay, is betrothed to Eilonwy.  When Eilonwy goes missing, Taran is given the task of watching after Rhun when they go out searching for her.  Adventures ensue, but lessons are also learned.  While he is unaware of the consequences of his actions at times, and is not the most competent of people, he is not a bad person.  While Taran saw him as a burden at the beginning of their trek, he learns to view him as someone who has value and an honorable inner core.

Rhun also does not have illusions about how he actually performs on tasks.  He is aware of his limitations.  Alexander has crafted a character that is easier for children and teens to relate to in Rhun, I think, than in Taran, who, despite his faults, somehow always manages to have things fall his way.  Prince Rhun doesn’t have that, and is a more believable supporting character due to it.

Another delicious part of the story of this book is the relationship between Taran and Eilonwy.  There’s always been hints that there is a romantic relationship tying the two together, but it is in this book, with the premonitory presence of Prince Rhun, to actually kindle something more blatant.  It’s rewarding to know that two characters I love also love each other.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the next two books, and wonder if they also are in the collection of short stories by Alexander about the land of Prydain.

Don’t tell me, though.  It’s too fun to find out on my own

Rating:  5/5.

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I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears by Jag Bhalla

I love words.  I love reading about words.  I have a favorite linguist (John McWhorter, for those who are interested), and never turn down a book that discusses language, whether it be English or a foreign one.  Thus I was heartily excited to read I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears.

The author, Jag Bhalla, is extremely enthusiastic about his subject.  He speaks British English, and has an Indian background.  His delight with language, in all its idiosyncrasies, does not stop with his Hindi, however; he’s an equal-opportunity idiom collector.  (Hindi is one of the languages that is featured, however.)

He provides us with a plethora of idioms, most of which are delightfully descriptive.  Some are not so far from those used in English.  For example, in Hindi, you say you have “stomach fire,” when in English you would say you have “heartburn.”  Not so odd.  Others are completely incomprehensible to the English speaker, like when someone “looks like September” in Russia, they look sad.  I found the variety at turns comforting, surprising, and chuckle-worthy.

So, yes, the book is charming.  It did have a couple of negative points.  The first was the narration Bhalla gives us before the lists of idioms.  Yes, he likes his topic, but the exposition is a little too in-your-face with cheekiness.  Especially annoying to me was the use of italics to point out English idioms within his little introductions.  It was distracting to me to have them pointed out, no matter how much Bhalla was trying to show how idioms become a staple of any language.

Another issue I had with the book is that one idiom might be included two or three times.  Often he will have talked about the idiom in an introduction to a chapter, then included it in a list within that chapter, and then later included in a separate chapter.  This is what happened with the Italian idiom, “to reheat cabbage,” which means to rekindle an old flame.  It is mentioned in the introduction of the chapter about love, then in the list within that chapter of “Other Romance-Related Idioms.”  Imagine my surprise when I also found it in the introduction to the chapter about food.  It is as if he either cannot remember he has mentioned it before, or that his reader is dim-witted.

Those problems are not negligible.  They are, however, outweighed by the enjoyable aspects of the book.  I’d recommend it for those who have an interest in language, but probably isn’t for someone who will be aggravated by the repetition or the boisterousness of the author.

Rating:  3/5.

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D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire

I’m going to be up front here:  this book is one of my favorites from my childhood.  In fact, I just had to buy a new copy for rereading purposes.  The old one was paperback and had sadly crumpled covers and some squished pages.  Such is the price a book pays for being so well-loved by a kid.  It meets the storytelling needs of more than just children.  The illustrations are wonderful.  It provides a wonderful, approachable base for those who are interested in Greek mythology.  And it’s just plain fun to share; I’ve given copies to friends before.

One of the nice things about this book is that it is divided into two sections: the gods and the heroes.  The god section, for the most part, focuses on the origin stories and on getting the reader familiar with the personalities and characteristics of the major gods and goddesses.  The stories are memorable; I was the only one in a college history class to be able to answer questions about Greek mythology, and I think it’s in large part to the excellently-written stories in this book.

The heroes section is about notable humans — members of the human race who managed inhuman feats of strength and cunning.  The nice thing about the Greek myths is that it rewards both physical and mental agility; that was a valuable lesson to me when I was young, seeing as I wasn’t the most athletic of children.

The illustrations are great.  They have a noticeable Greek flair, which adds to the setting of the stories.  They’re colorful and vibrant, and, at least to me, are very hard to date.  I thought it was a contemporary book when I was young, which would have been in the late eighties and early nineties.  Imagine my surprise when I learned it was first published in 1962.

If there is one shortcoming of this book, it’s that it has ruined me for other tellings and versions of a lot of the Greek myths.  I hear other versions, and I say to myself, No, that’s not the story! It takes a little practice to let others have their variations, but I think that’s a personal failing, not one of the book itself.

I am, by the way, keeping my old copy.  The new one is nice, but the old one is part of me.

Rating:  5/5.

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Critical Care by Theresa Brown

No matter how many medical memoirs I read, I never seem to get enough.  The best ones, I’ve found, lead me to a new understanding of how we, as biological creatures and thinking beings both, function.  They bring me into a realization about myself and others that would not have otherwise occurred to me.  I think this is a gift that this particular genre can give more easily than most other forms of nonfiction.  Theresa Brown’s entry into the field, Critical Care, is a competent work written about the in-hospital training of the author as a nurse.

In her book, Brown discusses some of the standard concerns of a new nurse:  feeling inadequately trained for some of the situations that arise; facing the strict chain of command that structures every hospital; dealing with horrible time constraints and unreasonable work loads; and learning to balance personal life.

Brown writes on these topics with an open hand, allowing the reader to easily grasp what is being said.  She has a gift for making the reader understand what, exactly, is going on with a particular treatment or procedure, and is able to make most situations fairly approachable.  I suspect this is because she has a background as an English professor, and has the technical skill to use language in a very effective way.  In fact, I think her idiosyncratic career history makes her story more compelling — it’s quite the career change to go from being in front of a classroom to being in a hospital room, hanging an IV.

She takes a look at some interesting topics, such as injuring her knee after becoming a nurse and viewing the role of patient from within, rather than without.  In fact, the book is full of fascinating stories about patients, the learning process, and on keeping one’s humanity while working with those who are ill.  It takes a while to realize that even those people Brown discusses as having gone into remission are more likely than not either dead or experiencing relapses.  How hard that must be for their caregivers, both past and present, to handle.

The stories she tells about her experiences and the people she has known and taken care of are not, however, ultimately satisfying.  The main reason for this is that she doesn’t manage to provide a feeling of depth to the lessons she attempts to impart.  Her anecdotes and recalled stories all have an underlying message of some sort or another, but are lacking the aspect of new insight.  The things she tries to teach feel as if they have been discussed before and been discussed better; she has nothing to add to the conversation that is special or innovative.

This is sad, because I think, with a little more encouragement, Critical Care could go from being a mediocre nurse’s memoir to being a work of incredible power.  Brown works with oncology patients, and, from what she has written here, she has had many powerful experiences.  She just needs to be able to focus on creating tight narratives that can stand on their own, without the explanation of what should be gleaned from the story she feels compelled to include.

Rating:  3/5.

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The Dogs of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald

When I first got this book, I thought it was going to be a story about organized crime in Rome.  And it is.  I thought it was going to be about murder.  And it is.  I thought it was going to be about how the police struggle with corruption from within and powerful forces from without making investigations more difficult.  And it is.  It’s all those things, but it also goes beyond those things in surprising and delightful ways.

The first book in what appears to be a planned series about the investigations of its protagonist, Commissario Alec Blume, The Dogs of Rome is also an impressive debut into fiction by the author, Conor Fitzgerald.  I’ll be honest — I didn’t expect to enjoy it a whole lot; new author, a genre I’m not well-read in, takes place in a country that I don’t have an inordinate amount of interest in.  It had a lot of marks against it.

Then I read the first chapter.  Oh, my God, the first chapter.  Fitzgerald puts his technical skill to amazing work here; the words describe a fairly pivotal event with such realism that I was left without breath for a couple of seconds by the time I finished reading it.  It was superbly written, and, if I could, I would pay him to write a book full of little vignettes just like this first section.

The rest of the book does not disappoint.  It doesn’t quite come to the level of the opening, but it’s finely crafted.  We follow Blume through the investigation of one murder, which turns into two murders, which turns into … well, you get the idea.  Fitzgerald brings the reader into the world of Roman law enforcement, which means that he also has to bring us into Italian politics, organized crime, and international diplomacy.  It’s interesting to watch Blume, an American, try to both navigate the subtleties of communication that Italians employ while also staying true to his straightforward, blunt style.

Rome in this book provides us with a series of crimes that brings us into contact with a wide variety of people:  a national representative, the leader of an organized crime ring, a shifty geek, corrupt law enforcement workers, an American legat working for the FBI, and a man running a dog-fighting ring.  I love the variation Fitzgerald is able to give the characters; they feel both firmly settled in established character types, yet fresh and innovative enough to cause the story to rise above the average thriller.

A couple of small things were a bit distracting to me.  The first was Fitzgerald’s rush to introduce the reader to the entire cast of law enforcement characters within the book.  Many were presented before they actually made a personal appearance.  This caused me to lose track of who was who, since I had too many names to keep track of.  It got straightened out fairly quickly, but was something that could have been easily avoided.

The other problem is truly minor:  some of Fitzgerald’s information about World of Warcraft was factually incorrect.  Yes, I’m a dork.  I know it won’t bother most people, who are not dorks.  But the top level in WoW currently is eighty, not sixty.  It very well may have been sixty when he started writing the book; that was the top level for a while.  Not now, though, and that’s where Fitzgerald or a fact-checker could have easily have won points with the dork faction for getting the technical aspects of their game right, but failed to do so.

Overall, I’d say that The Dogs of Rome is far from being a dog itself.  It is a sharp tale, told in a direct manner, with good characters, an exciting plot, and enough going on to keep the reader engaged until the end.

Rating:  4/5.

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