Saturday, December 24, 2011

Summerland—Michael Chabon

"Just because something is invisible and immaterial doesn't mean it isn't really there." (40)

I've actually read this book before. I try to read it once a year, although I have to admit, it's probably been about...two and a half years since my last reading. Knowing a bit about my ridiculous love for books, it should have an impact that I take time out from reading new books to read this old one. I love books by Michael Chabon in general. This is - as far as I know - his only children's book. (If you like this book and you're looking for something more adult - WAY more adult - you should read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Great book.)

I don't know a whole lot about baseball, but Chabon gracefully weaves the elements of baseball with pieces of American folklore into this story about a boy who has to try to prevent the Changer (or Coyote, as he's sometimes called) from ending the world as we know it.

Set in the fictional town of Clam Island, Washington (that's right, Washington State. What up?!), we encounter Ethan Feld, who is possibly the most devastatingly horrible baseball player in the history of the game. He moved to Clam Island with his father, who is working on revolutionizing the dirigible field, after his mom died of cancer. He mostly continues to play baseball because he knows it makes his dad happy. We also meet his best friend, Jennifer T. Rideout, who is actually a phenomenal ball player. They are joined in their adventure by Thor Wignutt, a boy acting like a robot attempting to be a boy, who has always seemed oddly out of place.

They are recruited by a "hero finder" who recruits Ethan to help prevent the end of the world. A ferisher explains to Ethan that the "world" is actually separated into four worlds, which are connected because they are actually four branches of the same tree. The ferisher elaborates that certain kinds of people can "scamper" from world to world. An oracular clam predicts that Feld will have the answer. Little do they all know, the Feld to which the clam refers is actually Ethan's dad. His father is kidnapped by Coyote, who wants to use him in order to help hasten the end of the world so that he can start over. Ethan must work together with his friends, the ferisher, and other folklore-ish creates to try and prevent the end of the world. Part of his journey through the Summerlands (one of the four worlds" formed by the great tree") is getting past particular obstacles by playing baseball, which seems to have some sort of mythical control over the creatures there. The question Ethan asks is: if I can't even play baseball, how am I going to save the world?

I've read this book before, and I'll read it again. As much as I am not particularly eloquent at explaining the plotline (it's really not as confusing as it sounds), I love this book and the beautiful worlds that Chabon creates, especially using themes and characters which are common to our American heritage. The adventure he takes us on with Ethan, Jennifer T.,, Thor, Cinquefoil (ferisher), Taffy (Sasquatch), and Skid (car-cum-dirigible) is a magical dirigible ride not to be missed.

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived—Ralph Helfer

I have to start out by saying, I was not impressed with this book. That's maybe not the best way to start out, but...I was fairly disappointed. I'm a huge fan of elephants; I greatly admire them, to the point that if I was able to pick what I would be in the next life, I would definitely choose an elephant. So I was actually really looking forward to reading this book, and getting to learn about the amazing life of the "greatest elephant that ever lived."

First, the subtitle is incredibly misleading, possibly to the point of being a falsehood. It may be based on a true story, but that's entirely different than saying that it is THE true story. Second, it is ridiculously novelized. Most of the book, in fact, doesn't focus so much on the life of Modoc as it does on her owner/human soulmate, Bram, and his journey through life.

The book begins with Bram and Modoc being born in the same hour of the same day in the late 1800s. They are raised together, and Bram's father teaches Bram the ways to train an elephant with affection and love. Bram's father is the trainer for one of the big circuses in Germany. You follow Bram and Modoc through their journey, from the sale of the circus to an American man, to the shipwreck off the coast of India, to the destruction and pillaging of the village Bram and Modoc come to call home in India, to a circus in New York City.

While it was certainly an interesting story, I had hoped for a more formal writing style. An omniscient narrator who claims to understand the thoughts of Bram and Modoc is somewhat ridiculous (considering one is an elephant) and not at all the structure one would expect for a so-called "true story."

All in all, disappointing. I loved learning about the elephant; other than that, not my favourite read.

The 13th Reality: The Journal of Curious Letters—James Dashner

"Mark your calendar. One week from the day before the day after the yesterday that comes three weeks before six months from six weeks from now minus forty-nine days plus five tomorrows and a next week, it will happen. A day that could very well change the course of your life as you know it." (43)

Every once in a while (especially when things in my actual life are getting stressful) I like to take a break from what I would call "grown-up books" and read a nice children's or young adult fiction book. I can zoom through it, and it usually doesn't require much paying attention; there aren't usually many serious themes that have to be considered, which I sometimes appreciate. This book was a perfect distraction from my life, although I did have to do more paying attention than I normally like.

One day, Atticus Higginbottom, also known as Tick (unfortunate name, possibly more unfortunate nickname) receives a mysterious letter in the mail, which includes the cryptic clue quoted above. He is provided with the instruction that if he burns the first letter, then he will not continue to receive the others; however, if he decides to keep the first letter, the sender will know and will continue to send these cryptic clues. If Tick can put the clues together, it's possible that he can help to save the world as we know it. He's warned by the enigmatic sender that it will put him in quite a bit of danger, and so he should think greatly before he makes a decision.

Tick discovers that there are a few other kids in the world who have received these letters and corresponds with them on the nature of the clues and the nature of the ending of the world. As the next letters come to him, he encounters some potentially lethal creatures and people who seem quite otherworldly. He is also provided with some "guides," who are sent to explain some things to Tick by the man who sent the letters; they are instructed to not give him too much information.

Although this book was 500 pages, it was a super quick, engrossing read that was well-written and tied beautifully to what I can only assume (having never had the patience or brain capacity to study them myself) are fairly relevant existing theories of quantum physics. Also, I really enjoyed realizing - although it's written for young adults, so I suppose I shouldn't be too impressed with myself - that I had put together some of the clues on my own. It kind of reminded me of reading The Mysterious Benedict Society (another great series).

And it's the first in a series. I can't wait to try out the others.