Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl/Robert Polidori/112 pp.

With the recent 25th anniversary of the April 26 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, I have been reading several books lately to learn more about this event and what its long-term effects have been.
Built in 1970 as a bedroom community for employees of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Pripyat was completely evacuated when a massive explosion occurred at the plant's No. 4 reactor. Residents were told they were only leaving for a few days, and were not permitted to take anything with them when they left. Similar instructions were given to the residents of the city of Chornobyl and of neighboring villages. Published in 2003, Zones of Exclusion is Polidori's photographic record of how the area has changed (and how it has remained frozen in time) in the following 25 years. Some of the most striking photos are of an amusement park, never used, that had been scheduled to open on May Day, just days after the nuclear plant disaster. Also interesting was the obvious way in which the city's plant life was, little by little, returning the town to forest.
While I enjoyed looking through these images, I was disappointed by the fact that this book, like so much other literature on the Zones of Exclusion, talks about how the area has been "untouched by humans" for the past 25 years, but other books I've read recently (specifically Voices from Chernobyl and Wormwood Forest) make mention of former residents, profiteers and vandals returning to the area to collect everything from family mementos to car parts to sell on the black market. Looking at these photos, I can't help wondering how much of what I'm seeing is the result of nature taking back the area, and how much is just the result of vandalism and theft.

link to a similar photo montage


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Skin / Adrienne Maria Vrettos / 227 pp.

This story follows Donnie, a fourteen year old boy whose older sister gradually starves herself to death. (Not a spoiler.) As his parents slowly separate and his sister gets thinner and thinner, all energy and attention is dedicated to his sister. Donnie starts withdrawing until he decides that it is easiest to pretend he is invisible.

I loved this book the first time I read it and love it just as much this time around. Donnie’s voice is very genuine, the characters are people from real-life, and the story is well-written and realistic. While this YA book is a quick read, it left me feeling very emotionally-drained.

Sight / Adrienne Maria Vrettos / 272 pp.

Sixteen year old Dylan has psychic visions where she sees certain children after they die. Now she must deal with a new friend’s curiosity, keep her old friendships, and help solve the recent murder of a child. Is this murder somehow connected to the murder that scarred her and her friends in kindergarten?

While this book had an interesting concept, it was a one-time read for me.

All Things Wise and Wonderful / James Herriot / 448 pp. (audiobook)

James Herriot is one of my all-time favorite fiction authors. Herriot (pen name of James Alfred Wight) started as an English country vet in 1940 and used his experiences to write a series of books, this one being the third. This book centers around the time he served in the Royal Air Force, but the majority of the stories are flashbacks to his life as a vet. Some memorable stories are the “butcher” dentist who knocks out airmen’s teeth with a hammer and chisel and the man who commits suicide when his dog dies.

I have always found Herriot's writing to be superb and his characters real and vividly memorable. Each chapter of his books are fairly self-contained stories that always leave me with some strong emotion. While the stories center around animals, the books examine human nature. This is a series I visit regularly and always enjoy.

For anyone interested, the audiobook version of this series as read by Christopher Timothy is flawless. His interpretation of Tristan Farnon is brilliantly hilarious.

Call of the Wild / Jack London / 172 pp

I read this book for the first time in third grade and loved it. However, when my third grade teacher read an excerpt of it to the class from a "taste of great literature" book, he stopped reading the excerpt due to violent content. Re-reading this book, I still love it, but realize just how gritty of a book this is.

Buck, a dog, is kidnapped from home and sold as a sled dog in Alaska. London paints a bleak and brutal reality. Dogs are beaten into obedience and worked to exhaustion and death. Dogs fight and kill each other for supremacy. The weak die, but Buck survives as his ancient instincts kick in and he hears the call of the wild.

Folk Keeper / Franny Billingsley / 176 pp.

Fifteen-year-old Corinna lives disguised as a boy and employed as a folk keeper. It is her job to pacify the folk, the spirits who take their anger out on the folk keeper rather than the village. Corinna has learned to be self-reliant. She lies, rejects friends, keeps secrets, and makes sure that others are punished if they cross her. She is summoned to a vast seaside estate to be their folk keeper. However, the folk there are wilder, fiercer and more deadly than she expects. Corinna struggles to pacify the folk, deals with an unexpected friendship, and unearths dark secrets that will eventually threaten her identity and life.

This book reminds me a bit of "Coraline" as it too is a dark book told in fairly simple language. It has a very creepy atmosphere, draws heavily from folklore, and features a strong heroine. A good book to re-read.

Catherine Called Birdy / Karen Cushman / 224 pp.

This is the diary of Catherine in 1209 England. Her father is trying to marry her off, but Catherine objects. She blackens her teeth when the first suitor comes and accidentally sets a later suitor on fire while he is using the privy. This is the journal of a strong-willed girl eventually finding her place in medieval society.

Once again, I enjoyed re-reading this book. As it is set in medieval England, much of its humor and language is bawdy/earthy. Catherine writes about various bodily functions, getting slapped around for disobedience, child brides, lice, etcetera. A very enjoyable read, mainly because of Catherine's strong and blunt voice.

Island of the Blue Dolphins / Scott O'Dell / 192 pp.

This novel is based on a true story. After having their numbers decimated by Aleut otter hunters, the NicoleƱo tribe, who lived on an island off the coast of California, was taken to live on California's mainland. However, a girl was left behind and lived 18 years alone on the island until found-again in 1853. While the novel ends with her re-discovery, the real girl was taken to the Santa Barbra Mission where she appeared to be happy even though no one could communicate with her, but then died seven weeks later.

This is a YA novel, told simply, but is an engaging and powerful story. Told from the girl's perspective, the story focuses on her time on the island and is a good survival story. I have always enjoyed this book every time I read it, and it is as enjoyable now as it was in 6th grade.

Measle and the Wrathmonk / Ian Ogilvy / 224 pp

Measle is an orphan forced to live with his evil uncle Basil. One day, Measle discovers a secret about Basil, and he is shrunk down and imprisoned in Basil's elaborate model train set. Fun as always, this book is very light-hearted and quirky. If people turning into tiny plastic models and giant killer cockroaches sounds interesting, you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Owls in the Family / Farley Mowat / 90 pp.

A very quick read, this book tells of Mowat's childhood with his two pet great horned owls. Wol, the braver owl, walks around town, bring skunks to the dinner table, and scares off bullies. Weeps, the shyer owl, bonds with the family dog and rides around town on Mowat's shoulder. This book makes you desperately wish you had a pet owl.

A Wrinkle in Time / Madeleine L'Engle / 256 pp.

Three children (Meg, Charles and Calvin) are sent on a journey to find Meg and Charles' missing father. To do this they travel through space and time, eventually traveling to Camazotoz where conformity is key. Upon arriving, they look down a street where all of the children are playing in identical front yards – the girls skipping rope in rhythm, and the boys bouncing balls in perfect synchronization. This is a very unique book with complex sub-themes and multiple side-stops to planets with angelic beings who quote Shakespeare and scripture.

King of the Wind / Marguerite Henry / 192 pp.

This is a loosely fictionalized account of the Godolphin Arabian, the ancestor of such famous race horses as Seabiscuit, Man o' War, War Admiral, and Silky Sullivan. By the author of the Misty of Chincoteague series, this is a very classic children's book. This book follows the “Black Beauty” route with a fall from good living, a string of cruel masters, and a final rescue. Unlike “Black Beauty,” the story is told from the perspective of Sham, a young stable boy who travels with his horse from Morocco to England, and no horses die . . . until the postscript.

The Midwife's Apprentice / Karen Cushman / 122 pp.

This is another earthy/bawdy story of Medieval life with a strong and stubborn female lead by Karen Cushman. This time, a girl named Brat is found sleeping in a dung heap by a village midwife. The shrewd and sharp-tempered midwife takes advantage of the promise of cheap labor, and Brat slowly becomes a midwife’s apprentice as well as haltingly learns her place in the world. While this book is written simply, the story is very alive. With descriptions of the midwife slapping a hysterical woman in labor to the midwife shouting up the birth canal for a baby to come out, I am glad we are past certain aspects of Medieval medicine.

The Girl in the Box / Ouida Sebestyen / 166 pp.

After being kidnapped, Jackie finds herself in a pitch-black cellar with a small amount of food and water as well as the typewriter and paper she had been carrying when abducted. Left in the cellar, Jackie starts typing a journal, letters for help, and letters to people in her life. Perhaps not a book for those who do not wish to be depressed.

The Language of Goldfish / Zibby Oneal / 179 pp.

***This review contains plot spoilers***

When Carrie was younger, she invented a secret language of whistling to call the goldfish that lived in her backyard-pond. Now in eighth grade, Carrie starts blacking out, having dizzy spells, and fixating on the fish/pond. To me, it was clear from the start that she was having these problems because she did not want to grow up, but the narrator does not reveal this, and Carrie does not discover this, until about the second-to-last chapter. I am not sure if this was intentional. Perhaps it was just an issue I had with Carrie's perspective, but I also had some problems with some of the unnecessary attention and descriptions about the overweight-ness of a girl who is mean to Carrie.

Shooting Star: A Novel About Annie Oakley / Sheila Solomon Klass / 176 pp.

This is a YA fictionalized first-person account of the childhood of Annie Oakley. This book resonated with me when I was younger, and I think would be a good read (both personal and read-aloud) for both young boys or girls as Annie's personality and spunk really comes through. It also has many universal themes like homesickness, bullying, friendships, and finding one's talents. While written at an easy reading level with a fast-moving plot, I felt the characters were developed and described well.

Face on the Milk Carton / Caroline Cooney / 192 pp.

When Jane sees her childhood picture on a missing child announcement on a milk carton, she starts having flashbacks about her early childhood that do not match up to what her parents have been telling her. Add in the possibility of a new romance for Jane, and things are even more complicated. Did her loving parents really kidnap her? Are they lying to her? Who is she remembering? Note that this is book one of a series, so the ending is very abrupt.

The Best Little Girl in the World/ Steven Levenkron / 256 pp.

When Franscesa/Kessa's ballet instructor encourages her to loose some weight, it sets off Kessa's downwards spiral into severe anorexia until she is hospitalized and close to death. This book examines Kessa's mindset, her family dynamics, and her relationship with her therapist.

Dr. Levenkron is a real psychiatrist who has dealt with anorexics. Because the book gets inside how Kessa thinks of her body and discusses techniques she uses to shed weight, I feel obliged to refer to the numerous Amazon reviews from current or previous anorexics who point out this book's trigger-points and possible dangers for others with anorexia. Some people who have struggled with anorexia also felt the book was too romanticized.

Wasted : A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia / Marya Hornbacher / 304 pp.

This is a very personal, gritty, dark book that examines Marya's eating disorder from when it started as Bulimia at age 9, to her turning to Anorexia as a teen, and finally, her tentative present day relationship with eating disorders. For anyone interested in the mindset of eating disorders, this is a very intimate look that goes many dark places.

However, as with “The Best Little Girl in the World,” I feel compelled to mention numerous Amazon reviews from current or previous anorexics who warn that this book can be used as a how-to guide and has extremely strong trigger-points.

Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West / Anne Seagraves / 165 pp.

This book's content stayed true to its title, giving a story-based look at prostitution in the American West. There are explanations of each of the prostitution hierarchies that existed, excerpts from funerals of famous madams, and pictures and stories about key ladies told in a fictional style. The book stays away from gritty details, except the heartbreaking chapter about the organized slavery and forced prostitution of Chinese girls and young women.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

How's Your Romance/Ethan Mordden/288 pp.

Subtitled "concluding the 'Buddies' Cycle", How's Your Romance is the last in a series of Mordden novels about a group of gay men living in New York City. The narrator, Bud, is loosely based on Mordden himself, a writer and known authority on Broadway musicals. Unlike many gay novels, which deal with the coming-out process or with the effects of the AIDS epidemic, the "Buddies" novels tell stories about a group of friends who also, incidentally, happen to be gay. The "coming out" and AIDS topics are included, but the novels deal with them as parts of the overall gay experience.
Mordden is one of my favorite writers; his sense of humor matches mine, and his attempts to show that gay people are humans too really hit home to me. Unlike characters in such gay "standards" as The Boys in the Band and the TV series "Queer as Folk", Mordden's group truly care for each other; they may tease, but they avoid really hurting one another.
The theme to this final volume in the cycle seems to be change. Bud's cousin, Ken, belongs to a group of gym-bunny "Chelsea Boys", only interested in surface topics and sex. Ken realizes that it's time for him to mature a bit and step away from these so-called "friends". Bud's naive young lover, Cosgrove, is forced to understand that his former best friend "J" ("Little Kiwi" or "Virgil" in previous stories) has changed and is no longer interested in the crazy activities they used to do together. And by the end of the novel, a "straight dude" roommate of one of the guys comes to the realization that he is gay.
As I said before, I really love Mordden's writing. This volume is perhaps not as strong as previous chapters of the "Buddies" cycle, but it's still a very enjoyable read. I heartily recommend it to "budding homos" and "curious breeders" alike!

Lolita/Vladimir Nabokov/317 pp.

On its surface, Nabokov's Lolita is the story of an older man's attempt to seduce a young girl. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, rents a room from Charlotte Haze so that he can be close to her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores (or Lolita). While Lolita is away at summer camp, Charlotte proposes marriage to Humbert, and he accepts in order to continue living in the house with Lolita. When Charlotte discovers that Humbert is infatuated with Lolita, she threatens to expose his secret; as she storms out of the house, she is killed by a passing car. Humbert goes to the camp and picks up Lolita, telling her that her mother is in the hospital and that he is taking her to the hospital. Instead, they go on a long cross-country trip, during which Lolita actually seduces Humbert. During their trip, Humbert uses persuasion, bribes, and threats of reform school to keep Lolita tied to him, and to get her to perform sexual favors. After a year on the road, the two move to a small New England town, where Lolita is enrolled in a private school; while there, she meets another older man, who plots with her to escape from Humbert. However, this new man soon grows tired of Lolita, and kicks her out on the street. When she eventually reconnects with Humbert, she is 17 years old, married, pregnant, and poor. Humbert gives her money in exchange for the name of the man who stole her from him, and then he goes and murders that man. Humbert is soon captured by the police, and the book is written in the form of a sort of confession of the murder and the events that led to it.
While early readers of the novel labeled it as erotica or a romance, Nabokov (and other critics) insist that isn't the case. The majority of the book deals with the narrator's attempts to keep Lolita under his control, and his realization (later on) that he has deprived her of the opportunity to experience a normal childhood. The writer Martin Amis claimed that Lolita was Nabokov's condemnation of how Stalinism destroyed the simplicity of the Russia of Nabokov's childhood.
When Nabokov first tried to get the book published, it was turned down by all the major publishing houses. He finally managed to get it published by a smaller press; it then proceeded to be banned in both Britain and France, before eventually being a bestseller in the U.S. (possibly because of the hype associated with it being banned elsewhere).

Tobacco Road/Erskine Caldwell/184 pp.

First published in 1932, this book is considered one of the key novels written about the Great Depression, often compared with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It's the story of the Lester family, sharecroppers in Georgia. Jeeter Lester's ancestor had been a man of some importance in the area, owner of a large tobacco plantation; over the course of several generations, the family's fortunes had turned, to the point that Jeeter's father had sold off the last of the family lands. Jeeter now lives as a sharecropper on land that his family once owned; he is so poor he can't even afford to buy the seed and fertilizer to plant crops on the land, and his family survives mostly by scrounging for bark and berries in the nearby woods. The family is so hungry that, when Jeeter's son-in-law, Lov, comes to talk to him, carrying a bag of turnips, they beat him with sticks to steal the turnips from him.
The book details the severity of the Lester family's poverty, and the various things they do to try and improve their condition. Their biggest fear is that their condition will worsen to the point that they are lower on the social ladder than the black families that live near them. They have sunk so low, due to their poverty and hunger, that they are reduced to the most primal of animal urges - finding food and finding someone to mate with. The family's interaction with Lov is reminiscent of a pack of wolves or hyenas - they are all sitting and lying around their yard as he approaches, but their minds and bodies prick up when he comes in sight, carrying the bag of turnips, and they move as a pack to trick him out of the food.
The book is an easy read, and a good illustration of the problems faced by poor farmers in the South during the Depression.