Review of American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang


American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien.
First Second, New York, 2006.  233 pages.
Winner of the 2007 Printz Medal.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008, Number 1, Contemporary Teen Fiction
My son loves graphic novels, but I haven’t read many myself.  However, when American Born Chinese won the Printz Medal for an outstanding Young Adult Novel, I decided this was one I should read.

I checked it out, but didn’t get around to reading it until it was due the next day.  I loved it!  I knew my son just had to read it.  Fortunately, graphic novels are quick reading, so he finished it before the day was over and I could turn it in.

This book is done beautifully.  The author uses the graphic novel form in a way that makes the story better than it would be as a regular novel.  I love the expressions on faces, and the way he uses visual storytelling and creative formats to tell the story.

There are three parallel stories in this book.  First is the story of the Monkey King.  He goes to a party with other gods, and they laugh at him for being a monkey.  He shows them.  Then we see Jin Yang, a boy born in America to Chinese parents.  They move from Chinatown in San Francisco to a place where he is the only Chinese kid in his class.  The third story has the format of a television show.  An American high school kid named Danny somehow has a cousin Chin Kee who’s terribly Chinese.  He visits Danny every year and embarrasses him so badly at his school that Danny’s been switching schools every year.

All the stories beautifully and unexpectedly come together at the end, with a well-told theme of being who you truly are.

At one point in the story of the Monkey King, he meets Tze-Yo-Tzuh, He Who Is, a God more powerful than any other gods.  At first, I was a bit offended when he started describing himself with words used from the Bible:  “I was, I am, and I shall forever be.  I have searched your soul, little monkey.  I know your most hidden thoughts.  I know when you sit and when you stand, when you journey and when you rest.  Even before a word is upon your tongue, I have known it.  My eyes have seen all your days.”

However, as I read on, I realized the author had beautifully placed the God Who Is into this tale about being the person (or monkey god) whom you were created to be.  This is a beautifully told, powerfully presented tale of the individuality God has lovingly placed in each one of us.  Yet it doesn’t come across as a religious story at all.  On the contrary, it comes across as a laugh-out-loud light-hearted comic book story.  Magnificent!

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Review of The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, by Peter Lane Taylor


The Secret of Priest’s Grotto:  A Holocaust Survival Story, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola

Kar-Ben Publishing, Minneapolis, 2007.  64 pages.

The official world record for the length of time spent underground is held by Michel Siffre, at 205 days.  But during the Holocaust a community of thirty-eight Jews spent 344 days hiding in huge network of caves.

The Secret of Priest’s Grotto tells about cavers Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola learning about the story, meeting survivors, and going back to the cave and discovering proof of their tale.

The families that went into the caves included young children as well as grandparents.  Some of the men went out to gather supplies, and they lived in fear of discovery.  Those in the caves determined to survive and to live for their families.

This book includes pictures of the caves now as well as the families in happier times before the war.  An amazing story unfolds of what people will do for their families.

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Review of Seeing Redd, by Frank Beddor


Seeing Redd:  The Looking Glass Wars, Book Two, by Frank Beddor

Dial Books, New York, 2007.  371 pages.

In Seeing Redd, the sequel to The Looking Glass Wars, Queen Alyss’s Aunt Redd is again plotting to take over the queendom of Wonderland.  Now she’s in our world gathering a sinister army to join her.  Next door to Wonderland, Alyss’s neighbor King Arch has plots of his own.  Meanwhile, Hatter Madigan is finding out what happened to his family while he was gone.

This second book has a darker feel, with lots of time taken up showing the evil of those dedicated to Black Imagination.  There’s also lots of detail in the fighting and weaponry.  This trilogy (I believe it will be) will make an exciting movie some day with lots of special effects, but I had trouble visualizing the detailed weaponry, and wasn’t terribly interested in that part.

I am now quite interested in Alyss, so I will definitely want to read the third book when it comes out.  I hope she gets a time of rest at the end!

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Review of We Are the Ship, by Kadir Nelson


We Are the Ship:  The Story of Negro League Baseball, words and paintings by Kadir Nelson

Starred Review.

Jump at the Sun (Hyperion), New York, 2008.  88 pages.

I’m not even a baseball fan, yet I found this a truly wonderful book.

Kadir Nelson’s paintings have the realism of old photos, yet have the glow of color that make them look a thousand times more alive.

I knew nothing about the story of the Negro Leagues before I read this book, and I was captivated by the tale of the obstacles these men overcame in order to play baseball, and their accomplishments of playing it well.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the players as a group.  You feel like you’re sitting down with a group of brilliant ballplayers, reminiscing about their experiences with the game in the good ol’ days — and the difficult times.

I heard about this book and wanted to simply look it over.  But a simple look through definitely was not enough!  I will be surprised if I don’t see this book on the lists at least for honors for the Caldecott, the Coretta Scott King, and the Sibert Medals.  Truly a magnificent book!

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Review of Beyond Codependency, by Melody Beattie


Beyond Codependency:  And Getting Better All the Time, by Melody Beattie

Harper/Hazelden, San Francisco, 1989.  252 pages.

Starred Review.

In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie explains codependency to those trapped in it, and helps them start down the road to recovery.

In Beyond Codependency, she celebrates recovery and revels in the fact that life does get better.

She says herself, “Codependent No More, my last book, was about stopping the pain and gaining control of our lives.  This book is about what to do when the pain has stopped and we’ve begun to suspect we have lives to live.  It’s about what happens next.”

As such, this is a hopeful, encouraging, and uplifting book.

Here are some examples of quotations I found helpful:

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Review of Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie


Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie

Hazelden, 1987.  231 pages.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008:  #5, Personal Growth

Starred Review

Codependent No More is by now a classic work on codependency.  If you want to understand what people are talking about when they mention “struggling with codependency,” this book is a good place to turn.

My friend Doris Rauseo gave me this copy of the book when I was a newlywed.  Interesting.  I have a feeling she saw many codependent traits in me which I was oblivious to.  Though I did read it and thought it had some good ideas.  However, 20 years later, I found the book in my moving boxes, and reading it now as an abandoned wife, I could suddenly see myself clearly.

Who is a Codependent?  The author describes in the introduction how as she became a codependent she began to understand them better:

“I saw people who were hostile; they had felt so much hurt that hostility was their only defense against being crushed again.  They were that angry because anyone who had tolerated what they had would be that angry.

“They were controlling because everything around and inside them was out of control.  Always, the dam of their lives and the lives of those around them threatened to burst and spew harmful consequences on everyone.  And nobody but them seemed to notice or care.

“I saw people who manipulated because manipulation appeared to be the only way to get anything done.  I worked with people who were indirect because the systems they lived in seemed incapable of tolerating honesty.

“I worked with people who thought they were going crazy because they had believed so many lies they didn’t know what reality was.

“I saw people who had gotten so absorbed in other people’s problems they didn’t have time to identify or solve their own.  These were people who had cared so deeply, and often destructively, about other people that they had forgotten how to care about themselves.  The codependents felt responsible for so much because the people around them felt responsible for so little; they were just taking up the slack.

“I saw hurting, confused people who needed comfort, understanding, and information.”

In this book, Melody Beattie manages to convey comfort, understanding, and information.  She helps you understand what codependency is, and helps you understand why sometimes being helpful ends up being hurtful.

Best of all, she offers hope of recovery:

“Codependency is many things.  It is a dependency on people — on their moods, behaviors, sickness or well-being, and their love.  It is a paradoxical dependency.  Codependents appear to be depended upon, but they are dependent.  They look strong but feel helpless.  They appear controlling but in reality are controlled themselves, sometimes by an illness such as alcoholism.

“These are the issues that dictate recovery.  It is solving these problems that makes recovery fun.  Many recoveries from problems that involve a person’s mind, emotions, and spirit are long and grueling.  Not so, here.  Except for normal human emotions we would be feeling anyway, and twinges of discomfort as we begin to behave differently, recovery from codependency is exciting.  It is liberating.  It lets us be who we are.  It lets other people be who they are.  It helps us own our God-given power to think, feel, and act.  It feels good.  It brings peace.  It enables us to love ourselves and others.  It allows us to receive love — some of the good stuff we’ve all been looking for.  It provides an optimum environment for the people around us to get and stay healthy.  And recovery helps stop the unbearable pain many of us have been living with.

“Recovery is not only fun, it is simple.  It is not always easy, but it is simple.  It is based on a premise many of us have forgotten or never learned:  Each person is responsible for him- or herself.  It involves learning one new behavior that we will devote ourselves to:  taking care of ourselves.  In the second half of this book, we’ll discuss specific ideas for doing that.”

This is a helpful, encouraging, and liberating book.

Here are more quotations that struck me as I read it:

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Review of A Visitor for Bear


A Visitor for Bear, by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

Candlewick Press, 2008.  56 pages.

Starred Review.

“No one ever came to Bear’s house.  It had always been that way, and Bear was quite sure he didn’t like visitors.  He even had a sign.”  NO VISITORS ALLOWED

However, along comes an extremely persistent mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.

This mouse thwarts all of Bear’s plans to keep him out.  The result?  Bear learns that maybe visitors aren’t so bad after all.

The story is simple, but the execution is exquisite!  The expressions on the faces of Bear and the mouse are delightful, beautifully conveying Bear’s anger, surprise, resignation, and eventual delight.

This is a fabulous Story Time selection, as the repetition gets the kids wondering where the mouse will pop up next.  I’ve already tried the book out on three classes of third graders, with great success, and I think it will do equally well with preschoolers.  This book is simply delightful.

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Review of Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington


Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington:  Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Abrams Image, New York, 2007.  191 pages.

Here’s a book about logic, explaining formal and informal fallacies.  Doesn’t that sound delightful?  Oh, perhaps I’m in the minority with that opinion.

However, where your run-of-the-mill logic textbook will illustrate its points with p’s and q’s and made-up arguments, this book uses statements made by actual politicians to illustrate the fallacies.  Where those don’t make the point clearly enough, they’ve also used jokes.

The authors say themselves:

“The field of logic — much of it rooted in the writings of the early Greeks — demonstrates what rules need to be followed to go from true propositions to correct conclusions.  Or to put it the other way around, it shows how we can be tricked by logical fallacies, what logicians call formal fallacies.  Epistemology instructs us in what we can deem knowable and why, including how we can sensibly talk about what we are able to know.  That field has given rise to conceptual analysis, a rigorous technique for analyzing language and, well, digging out bullshit in all its varieties.  As to rhetoric and psychology, they show how our minds and emotions can be manipulated by loaded language. . . .

“But hold the phone!  Lest anyone think this stuff is dry as a prairie patty, you should know that we are of the Philogag School of Philosophy, the school that maintains that any philosophical concept worth understanding has a great gag lurking inside it.  As we shovel our way through the political patty field, we will uncover not only deceptions, but — more importantly — jokes that point at them and say ‘Gotcha!'”

I challenge anyone to read this book without laughing out loud!

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Review of The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor


The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor

Dial Books, New York, 2006.  358 pages.

Starred review.

What if Lewis Carroll didn’t make up the story he told in Alice in Wonderland?  Suppose instead of him telling a story to Alice Liddell, she was the one who told a story to him.  In that story, she was really Princess Alyss Heart of Wonderland.  Suppose her story were true…

Alyss’s last day in Wonderland was her seventh birthday.  She was ready to begin her formal training to eventually become queen.  Alyss had the most powerful imagination ever seen in a seven-year-old Wonderlander.  This was important, because what the queen imagined became real.

Instead of the Cheshire cat Lewis Carroll told about, Alyss’s birthday was interrupted by a part-cat, part-human creature with nine lives, the chief assassin of her aunt Redd, who wanted the throne.  Alyss’s aunt Redd burst into the celebration shouting, “Off with their heads!” She battled Alyss’s mother and took over the Queendom.

Hatter Madigan was the name of Alyss’s personal bodyguard.  He managed to escape with Alyss to another world – our world.  But on the way, he lost his grip on her, so while she landed in England, he wound up in Paris.

At first, Alyss could still create things with her imagination.  She could still make flowers sing.  But as time went on, as her stories were mocked, as she was taught what was “real” and what was not, her imagination grew weaker.

But after Lewis Carroll published his book of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hatter Madigan, still searching for Alyss 13 years later, at last knows where to find her….

This well-crafted book has characters that sound familiar, but have much more depth than you might have remembered.  Once I started this book, I didn’t want to stop.  I’m going to start reading the sequel right away!

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Review of Audiobook Thank You, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse


Thank You, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse, performed by Alexander Spencer

Recorded Books, 1984.  Originially published in 1934.  6 compact discs, 6 hours.

I’ve decided that the ultimate audiobook for a long drive is anything by P. G. Wodehouse, read by someone like Alexander Spencer, with an exquisite English accent.  When you’re laughing out loud, you can’t possibly fall asleep at the wheel.

I think of P. G. Wodehouse as the Seinfeld of 1930’s England.  The rich young gentlemen get into elaborately entangled comic situations, which all come together for a big laugh in the end.

In Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster actually accepts Jeeves’ resignation.  Bertie is dedicating himself to playing the banjolele, and Jeeves cannot tolerate it.  However, they both end up in Chuffnall Regis, where Bertie’s old school friend, Chuffy (Lord Chuffnall), is falling in love with Pauline Stoker, a millionaire’s daughter who was once engaged to Bertie.

In the mess that results, involving captivity on a yacht, sleeping in sheds, a chase with a chopper, a cottage on fire, black-faced minstrels, and the temptations of kippered herring, only Jeeves has the brain capable of sorting things out and orchestrating a happy ending for everyone.

While I was in the middle of listening to this book, I found myself thinking about heliotrope pajamas.  You see, Bertie finds Pauline Stoker in his bed, wearing his heliotrope pajamas, and finds her quite fetching.  Doesn’t the phrase “heliotrope pajamas” have a ring to it?  (All the more so when you’ve been listening to it rather than merely reading it.  I found myself saying the phrase over to myself.)

I mused, “I wonder what color exactly are heliotrope pajamas?”  Well, my son heard me, and looked up heliotrope on Wikipedia.   ( )  He showed me exactly the shade.  (I pretty much had it right, for the record!)  But he looked at the references to “Heliotrope in popular culture” and was surprised to find exactly the scene I had mentioned:  “In Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster returns home to find Pauline Stoker in his heliotrope pajamas after swimming ashore from her father’s yacht.”

So you see, not only can you get lots of laughs, you can also learn the full story of the legendary heliotrope pajamas of Bertie Wooster.

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