RSS

Famous First Lines – TRIVIA!

Famous First Lines – TRIVIA!

I recently began my dream job – as a middle school librarian.  I am fully immersed in the world of middle grade fiction, library cataloging, textbook repair, and, oh yeah, middle schoolers.  I’m surprised how much I love them!  Readers and non-readers, doesn’t matter – kids are cool and interesting.

In order to make the library more interesting (and as a topic for the dreaded Library Display Board – replacing the head shots of long dead authors who had graced that particular wall for several years now), I decided to launch a trivia contest centered on Famous First Lines, all of them from children’s books.  The rules for the students are that they can use the internet to do their research (as long as they get an answer, I figure they are learning something!), but I’m curious to see how many adults will be able to guess without the use of a search engine.

I’m looking for Book Title and Author.  Give it your best shot!

Here’s the quiz:

1. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

2. All children, except one, grow up.

3. In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

4. You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it ain’t no matter.

5. Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

6. There was no lake at Camp Green Lake.

7. Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.

8. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

9. Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

10. Call me Ishmael.

Have fun!

Advertisements
 
3 Comments

Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2012), by Benjamin Alire Saenz, in under 48 hours. The same 48 hours in which my husband left on a business trip and I started a new job and still had to care for two children on my own. I read so much I barely slept, and sleep is precious to me. Would you go without eating for a day just to read a book?  Same thing for me with sleep.  I don’t give it up easily. So what makes people do that?  Stay up all night over a book?

In the case of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, it was the characters. Sáenz made me care about the two boys, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, and their dogs. I cared so much about every single person in the whole damn book, really.  How does an author get you to care so much about his characters that you will give up things that are valuable and precious to you just to keep reading? Sáenz did it by:

  1. Showing us who his characters are through their actions.
  2. Having his characters tell us they are one thing, but showing us they are another.
  3. Withholding critical information until the end, and then making it worth waiting for.
  4. Having a character change, really change, during the course of the book.
  5. Giving us characters that have flaws as big as alligators, but are still likeable, then letting them wrestle those alligators right before our eyes.  It’s painful, but riveting.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the story of two boys, both of them outsiders, both of them awkward.  It’s narrated by Aristotle (Ari), a big angry kid who just can’t make sense of anything: his family (especially his father), other boys his age, girls, and life in general.  When he does make a friend (Dante), he isn’t sure about him either, but Ari learns.  He learns so much in the course of this book.  Ari learns the secrets of the Universe. All of them.  He learns about love and loss and friendship and courage and loyalty and, well, everything.

This is LGBT literature (I guess), but it shouldn’t be labeled, because it transcends any label, like love transcends gender.  This book isn’t really about gay love, it’s about love.  It’s not about boys coming of age, it’s about people becoming aware and mature. It’s important that this book find its audience, and I’m still wondering who that audience is.  Older young adults, for sure (with parents who are okay with their kids reading about real stuff, like masturbation and pot and sexuality), as well as anyone looking to know more about what it feels like to grow up gay today.

Oh yeah, and anyone who believes in love and wants to know what the secrets of the Universe are.  Help this book find its audience.  Read it.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 17, 2013 in Fiction, Young Adult

 

Tags: , , , , ,

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

I’ve often thought that the very best writing is really just controlled chaos; the creative right brain guided by the analytical left brain, like a wild horse ridden by a professional jockey.  NoViolet Bulawayo writes like this – she knows when to give the horse its head and let it run, but she is skilled enough at her craft to control its course, making the powerful experience of reading her work meaningful.

We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2013) is told in two distinct halves by Darling, a young girl who spends the first ten years of her life dodging the political violence of Zimbabwe and the next part of her life living with an aunt in ‘Destroyedmichygen’.  Darling’s Africa is full of physical poverty and spiritual splendor; her America is full of physical abundance and spiritual emptiness.

This contrast is reflected in Bulawayo’s language:  the first half of the book is rich, magical, dark, steamy, and bursting with energy- Darling is fully alive, using all of her senses to survive. Bulawayo, like the Darling and her friends (Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, and Chipo) doesn’t always distinguish between the real and the imagined; one can create the other, she seems to be telling us, at least in Africa.  In one of the most wrenching scenes in the book, a BBC reporter catches Darling and her friends acting out the murder of a friend in a graveyard in Zimbabwe.  He asks: What kind of game were you just playing? and Bastard answers: Can’t you see this is for real?

In contrast, the second half of We Need New Names is controlled, dulled, and static; as if Darling is seeing everything through a dirty pane of glass.  But it is still Darling’s voice, it is still compelling and honest, and she is as bewildered as we are as to how two such diametrically opposed realities can exist at the same time, on the same planet, and in one person’s experience.

We Need New Names is current and urgent.  It’s as real as it is fictional.  It is a small black hand wiping the grime off of the windows of the world. It says ‘Look! Here is what is happening in Zimbabwe! In America!’.  We Need New Names fully deserves the honor of being long listed for the 2013 Man Booker prize for Fiction for 2013.  It also deserves to be widely read by as many people as possible, and I highly recommend it.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with an extremely deformed face.  “I won’t describe what I look like,” he says on the first page of Wonder, by R.J. Palacio.  “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” After years of surgeries and homeschooling, we meet Auggie as he is about to go to school for the first time as a fifth grader at Beecher Prep. Wonder is the story of Auggie’s year-long effort to deal with his classmates’ prejudices, fears, discrimination, and cruelty.  Thanks to Palacio’s terrific writing and recognizably real characters, Wonder is not a downer.  To the contrary – Wonder is a beautiful book.

Wonder is told from multiple points of view, which is a brilliant way to allow the reader to empathize with many different reactions to Auggie’s deformity.  We experience Auggie’s journey through the eyes of his sister, his sister’s boyfriend, his friend Jack, and several other classmates. As each of these characters comes to terms with their own fears and insecurities through their friendship and contact with Auggie, the reader does too.

Palacio writes impeccable ten-year-old dialogue, and that makes the story fresh and relevant (“I know, right?”).  It helps that Wonder is also sprinkled with lyrics from Christina Aguilera, lines from Hamlet, snippets from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, current movie references, and quotes from J.M. Barrie, making it accessible to almost any middle-schooler. Wonder runs directly counter to what most kids are picking up from the media these days – instead of intolerance and hatred, Palacio shows us again and again, from many perspectives and in many voices, how kindness can save the day. As the parent of two middle school aged kids, I’ll be sure to make Wonder required reading in my house.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on July 28, 2013 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , ,

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

What’s it like over there?”

This was the question that prompted Kevin Powers to write The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) after serving as a machine gunner in Iraq.  People wanted to know more than what the news was showing and the journalists were writing, they wanted to know “what it felt like; physically, emotionally and psychologically,” Powers said in a recent interview in The Guardian.  Powers responded by digging down into the meat of his experience and writing an emotionally raw, lyrically beautiful, unflinching account of one young man’s tour of duty. The Yellow Birds gets right to the heart of issue:  the conflict between what soldiers are told to do by their superiors and what their conscience tells them to do. The three main characters in the story all find different ways to resolve this conflict, and all three face different consequences.

The Yellow Birds is as fearlessly written as anything I’ve read.  It’s a mad scramble of words that burn and smoke in piles of terrifying and beautiful images. Powers writes with freewheeling desperation, digging in and staying down for long periods of time, immersing the reader in the textures, sounds, and sights of the Iraq of his memory.  Like memory itself, the book layers images on top of one another until things that are hard to look at directly come into a hazy focus.  It’s as close to the truth as most of us can stand.

While many of the servicemen and women returning from Iraq may not be able to tell us what it was like ‘over there’, Kevin Powers can.  I like to think that Kevin Powers made the decision to try to process his experience with the Iraq war into something positive, something life affirming, when he wrote this novel. The Yellow Birds is not an easy book to read, but it is necessary, if we want to know (and we should all want to know) what is really happening to our young men and women when they fight for this county.  Please read it.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 2, 2013 in Fiction

 

Tags:

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Have you ever heard Japanese chanting?  The Japanese language is full of short syllables and powerful vowels; it is made for chanting.  To hear hundreds of children chanting in Japanese is a marvelous thing, their many voices converge in short bursts of unity.  Even in America, most Zen Buddhists continue to chant the sutras in Japanese, as there is a rhythm to the language that is both precise and soothing.  What does that have to do with The Buddha in the Attic (Anchor, 2012), by Julie Otsuka?

Well, everything, really.

The Buddha in the Attic imagines what it was like to come to America for young Japanese women in the early 20th century.  Julie Otsuka makes the brave decision to write in first person plural (think ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ as the dominant pronoun) seem like the no big deal.  By writing from the perspective of an entire group of women, Otsuka manages to capture the cultural aspect of the experience rather than just portraying a singular experience. Much like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, Otsuka uses repetition (we came, we left, we saw, we picked….) to sharpen the point of the narrative and drive it deeper into the reader’s consciousness.

In the Japanese chanting I have heard there is often a main chant and a counterpoint; a single braid woven out of many threads.  Somehow, the ‘we’ in this book has the same effect.  I wasn’t sure about Otsuka’s ability to carry this off for an extended period of time (after all, it’s a pretty cumbersome and unusual way to write that does not necessarily draw you in to the identity of a single character), but her writing is so steady and her details painstakingly chosen.  The Buddha in the Attic is a portrait of a generation of women written in collage.

The Buddha in the Attic is actually the second book that Otsuka wrote that addresses the Japanese-American experience.  Her first book, When the Emperor was Divine (Anchor, 2003), is the story of a specific family and their experience in an internment camp in the United States during World War II.  While not as dramatically riveting as The Buddha in the Attic, Otsuka manages to make the family’s experience universal by not naming any of the characters, although she dives deep into their internal processes.  Read together, these two novels offer the reader access to a piece of cultural history that is both fascinating and horrifying.

I recommend them both.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 14, 2013 in Fiction

 

Tags: , , , ,

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December (Random House, 2013) is George Saunders’s fourth collection of short stories, although the first full book of his I’ve read.   I should have read his work sooner.

While many of these stories exhibit his characteristic ‘one-step-away-from-reality’ settings and characters, this collection is stunning for the deep and varied perspectives it offers.  Each story is told from the distinctive voice of one (or more) characters, and they could not be more deliriously different.  Saunders is a shape changing ventriloquist, assuming the voices of various men, women, and children at will, bringing the reader right into the prefrontal cortex of some memorable and bizarre individuals.

In “Tenth of December” Saunders weaves back and forth between the perspective of an old man with a brain tumor in the last stages of sanity and a young boy who is in tremendous emotional pain.  The juxtaposition of the two voices is exquisite.  In “Puppy” Saunders uses voice to explore class as he volleys back and forth between two women of different social spectrums.  The mental commentary the two women create around each other is pointed, painful, and true.  Saunders even explores how a single character’s voice can change over time: in “By Chivalric Fiasco” a character ingests a substance that causes him to speak like a courtesan of middle ages.  The drug wears off midway through a paragraph of internal monologue, and we get to witness the change on the page.  Saunders is showing off, in the best possible way.

Tenth of December left me speechless.  Saunders breaks the rules of writing so effortlessly he makes me wonder if those rules ever truly existed.  After reading Tenth of December, I am ready to rip up everything I’ve ever written and start over, without the inhibitions this time.  I regret it took me so long to sit down with a book of his stories, but I’m off to look for more.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 13, 2013 in Fiction, Short Stories

 

Tags: , , , ,