25 August 2011

Boldly going into board books

I suppose after my tirade about the BabyLit series of board books, I would be a hypocrite if I didn't have a dig at what can only be described as this fall's geekiest offering for "the youngest reader." Well, call me a hypocrite--and completely illogical--because I am nowhere near as offended by The Star Trek Book of Opposites as I am by "Little Miss Austen's" and "Little Master Shakespeare's" gnawable classics. Perhaps it's because my Trekkie heart skipped a beat when I saw it. I wanted to buy it.....for myself. Because it looks hysterical. I don't get the impression that there are any bogus attempts to convince parents that their babies will learn about science by plunking this book in their lab. I'm not even sure babies will learn a whole lot about Star Trek from looking at it. Or grow up to be nerds themselves. But for those of us already inhabiting that place known as space, the final frontier--what's not to love?

24 August 2011

Anticipated Arcs: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

My experience of Jack Gantos consists almost entirely of Rotten Ralph. I haven't read the Jack Henry books, and I have only gotten as far as borrowing Joey Pigza. It was returned unread, another victim of a hydra-esque TBR pile. I mention all this because Gantos' latest book, Dead End in Norvelt, features a character named, funnily enough, Jack Gantos. But this middle-grade story bears almost no resemblance to the one he told in his compelling YA autobiography Hole in My Life--unless you compare a summertime grounding to a prison term. So I am at a bit of a loss when reflecting how the new book compares to his previous fiction (naughty red cat aside,) and utterly flummoxed if I try to match it to his actual life story. So let's examine "Norvelt" on its own merits.

The story takes place over the course of two months in the summer of 1962. Jack Gantos is the only child of a couple who might very well become Archie and Edith Bunker when they retire. They live in a Pennsylvania town called Norvelt, a cooperative social experiment created after the Great Depression and championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, after whom the town is (re)named. Grounded almost as soon as vacation starts, Jack finds himself hired out by his mother to elderly neighbor Miss Volker, a woman who doubles as coroner and obituary writer for the local paper. But her hands are so crippled by arthritis that she needs to dip them in hot paraffin just to regain temporary dexterity. She dictates her obituaries to Jack, concluding each with a history lesson which is sometimes relevant to the deceased, but usually is just a chance to pontificate about forgetting the lessons learned from history. Add to that: a best friend whose father runs the local funeral parlor, an invasion by a group of surly Hell's Angels, constant nose-bleeds, an inexplicably loaded Japanese WWII rifle, some human-deer interaction reminiscent of The Queen, (but funnier,) a never-ending supply of Landmark Biography references, a twelve-year old who drives a car, and a retiree who rides a tricycle. That goes only some of the way towards explaining how completely off the wall this book is.

Thankfully, Gantos maintains a sense of nostalgia which allows the reader to laugh at the ensuing wackiness in the context of an era so different from today--as opposed to just being weird for weird's sake. Although I'm pretty sure there is some of that, too, since I don't know which part of the book is factual and which he completely made up. Not quite historical fiction, not quite autobiography, not quite postmortem for an America that is long-gone, Dead End in Norvelt is definitely one of the funnier and more unusual books you are likely to read.

Reviewed from an Advance Readers Copy. Dead End in Norvelt--coming your way September 13, 2011.

16 August 2011

Travels with Dodsworth

This summer saw the release of Dodsworth in Rome, the fourth volume in the easy reader series about Dodsworth and his accidental companion, Duck. It's an amusing book in a series which consistently entertains and has the capacity to continue for many volumes yet as the pair bumbles their way across the globe.

The journey actually started, sans Duck, in a junk yard, where the underachieving Dodsworth, whose motto was "try to do as little as possible" would seek out items to sell in his thrift shop. The Pink Refrigerator, the picture book which first introduced Dodsworth, is that rare achievement: dryly funny and infinitely wise at less than 35 pages. Unlike the protagonist of David McPhail's Mole Music, who actively seeks out meaning in his life, or the lackadaisical Al in Arthur Yorink' Hey Al, who learns to find paradise close at home, Dodsworth is quite content with the routine of the hum drum existence which asks so little of him. It takes the intervention of a magical refrigerator (yes--I said magical refrigerator) to open his eyes to the wonders of life not just around him but within his own grasp. It is from these philosophical roots that the more routine hijinks of the road trip emerge.
I have great affection for the Dodsworth series. Yet while I find the books to be a cut above many written at the easy reader level, I feel that they lack something of the magic of The Pink Refrigerator. The character of Duck irritates me more than he engages me. A reread of the books reminded me that Duck gatecrashed Dodsworth's world tour, and Dodsworth is now essentially stuck with Duck until he can return him to his home and friend at Hodge's Cafe. While Duck's (mis)behaviour often precipitates the action of the books, and as a result of wild-goose chases (so to speak) gives Dodworth an opportunity to tour a given city, his inability to learn from his experiences drives me nuts. Dodsworth has essentially become the straight man in his own series, which seems a little bit unfair since he sets off at the end of The Pink Refrigerator to "find an ocean," not babysit a cooky duck.

Still, the adventures of Dodsworth and Duck have a whimsical innocence which I can only describe as Capraesque. No sooner does calamity befall them (such as when Duck makes paper airplanes out of all their Euros and launches them from the top of Eiffel Tower,) then good fortune smiles upon them (a local bakery hires them to deliver bread.) In London, Dodsworth and Duck are separated, and find themselves in a trading places scenario reminiscent of The Prince and the Pauper and concludes with a sleepover at Buckingham Palace. And in Rome, it is actually Duck who has the best line in the book: when Dodsworth explains that tourists throw coins over their shoulders into the Trevi Fountain to ensure that they return to Rome someday, Duck asks, "Why leave in the first place?"

A fair question. But leave they eventually will--once they pay back all the money Duck pinched from the Trevi Fountain. There is a big wide world to discover (I'm still hoping they make it to Boston.) And although they ferried from New York to Paris, and crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon, Dodsworth has yet to stand before an ocean and discover if its reality lives up to his own imagination. Can he return home a fuller--and fulfilled-- individual because of his experiences? Will he be able to do more than "just enough" once he is back home with his thrift shop and returns to everyday life, whose promises will be limited only by his own definition of "limited"? These are big questions for a series aimed at emerging readers, but they are at the heart of Dodsworth's quest. So even if Duck's hijinks tend to distract Dodsworth from his original initiative, the challenge of the pink elevator--"keep exploring"--is a mandate that holds relevance for readers of any age.

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