Monthly Archives: January 2010

Three for the kids’ bookshelf

Been reading a lot of Young Adult books lately. Here are three I’m recommending these days:

The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)

I’m a bit late to this party, as the cult sensation around 2007’s brainy action adventure is already well established. (Kids show up to book signings with author Stewart dressed as characters from the book; also, while reading this during a swim team practice for Oldest Son, one mother nudged me and said, “Oh, my daughter loves that book!” I’m pretty sure she was genuinely into the book, and not coming on to me.)

It gets and deserves this adulation for making heroes out of a set of brainy kids. You know: nerds. The kind of smarties who are, in other books, useful-but-barely-tolerable bookworms relegated to the sidelines.

You know how Hermione is the nag who Potter and friends tease for being such a relentless know-it-all? The kids in TMBS are nobody’s nags, and they don’t shiv just because they spend more time in a library than on a Quidditch pitch. Each of Stewart’s four heroes are selected for a secret mission because they are smart — and not just book smart, either. Stewart celebrates all kinds of braininess, from introspective and curious Reynie to adventurous and instinctive Kate. The socially maladroit Sticky is the only character who is a typical walking calculator, but Stewart’s great creation Constance Contraire is selected for the team for being a stubborn skeptic — a rare and misunderstood trait. Kudos to Stewart for introducing readers to the concept that doubters and difficult people can be essential contributors to a project.

It’s a great cast that rises above the adventure itself, which is actually rather bland: The MBS kids infiltrate a bizarre private school where children are being brainwashed to take part in a sinister thought-control experiment. The action settles into a lot of skulking, observing and reporting back, followed by periods where the children review their observations and make startlingly accurate suppositions.

But watching these characters bounce off each other, and generally elevate the role that thinkers can play in a YA book, gives this one a lift onto the must-read list.

The Black Book of Secrets (F.E. Higgins)

I didn’t see this one coming. This 2007 book flew all the way under my radar until a paperback copy landed on the bookshelf at our school’s Scholastic bookfair. I judged it purely by the cover — because, come on, something with the title “The Black Book of Secrets,” gussied up like a distressed Old West ledger, and featuring a tree frog and a Lurch lookalike can’t be ignored. So I picked it up.

What a surprise. Higgins spins a weird and spooky tale that unfurls at a nice tense pace. Set in a vaguely 19th-Century, vaguely European country, the book opens with a downright Dickensian dilemma: Street urchin Ludlow Fitch escapes his parents as they try to sell his (still-attached) teeth to an unscrupulous dentist — and it just gets better from there. Lud falls in with Joe Zabbidou, a mysterious loner who purports to buy people’s darkest secrets from them, a “secret pawnbroker.”

Their profession has a curious effect on Pagus Parvus, the hillside village where they set up shop.  Zabbidou gives solace to the poor souls who unburden their secrets, and sows mistrust among those who have only greed and suspicion in their hearts. The tension simmers to boil, and is interrupted at perfectly tantalizing moments for the confessions of the tormented customers with sins to unload.

The writing is a treat, too, with clean, clear descriptions and amusing observations that help the book breeze merrily along:

Horatio had started in the shop as soon as he could reach the counter, and over the years the young butcher had begun to take on the appearance of the meat with which he worked all day. He had gradually become more solid in the body, rather like a bull, and his thick, hairless forearms were shaped like two shanks of lamb. His skin was the color of hung meat, a sort of creamy blue, and of similar texture. His face was long and his nostrils flared, and his brown eyes surveyed his surroundings with mild interest. The tips of his fingers were thick and blunted; for a man who made his living working with knives he was surprisingly careless.

The Schwa was Here (Neal Shusterman)

Wowzers. Shusterman hooks his readers with a truly unique character: Calvin Schwa, a kid so bland and forgettable, he’s hard to notice even when he’s standing right next to you. Narrator Tony “Antsy” Bonano notices this tendency and experiments with “the Schwa Effect” to see what Calvin can get away with without folks noticing. The answer is, a lot.

Here’s where many authors would take this idea and build a zany story of infiltrating girls’ locker rooms or spying on bullies, but Shusterman is telling a surprisingly moving tale about teens finding their identities and divining meaning from the everyday things that make up their lives.

It’s written in a bouncy Brooklynese, coming on strong with a bunch of dropped Gs and wiseguy phraseology like “on accounta.” But the narrator’s voice is so funny and genuine that the dialect fades from annoyance and becomes a welcome part of the conversation.

Shusterman’s ear for teen dialog is practically cinematic:

“I’ve been thinking there’s something wrong with him.”

“Like he’s retarded you mean?”

Howie’s disgusted by this. “The proper term is ‘mentally handicapped,'” he says. “Otherwise the retards get offended.”

… and he shows a seeming effortlessness when plumbing depth in Antsy’s chatty asides:

I guess this fascination I had with the Schwa was because in some small way I knew how he felt. See, I never stand out in crowd either. I’m just your run-of-the-mill, eigth-grade wiseass, which might get me somewhere in, like, Iowa, but Brooklyn is wiseass central. … “You’ve got middle-child syndrome,” I’ve been told. Well, seems to me more like middle-finger syndrome. … But the Schwa — he was worse off than me. He wouldn’t be the “whatever-happened-to” kid — he’d be the kid whose picture gets accidentally left out of the yearbook and no one notices. Although I’m a bit ashamed to say it, it felt good to be around someone more invisible than me.

The Schwa and Antsy, gaining notoriety from their Schwa Effect experiments, take a dare to sneak into a cranky old shut-in’s apartment and, of course, they get caught. Again, a lesser author would use this “worlds collide” plot barb to commence a wacky misadventure where the Old Man Learns to Be a Kid Again just as the Kids Learn Something About Growing Up — but Shusterman is swinging for a fence much farther away. That sort of easy sentimentality can pound sand.

The subtle shifts in character attitude are a wonder to watch as things get complicated between Antsy, the Schwa and a savvy blind girl they both fall for. (The easy way out? The blind girl would have played the part of the Magic Pixie Girl, that archetype character whose quirks and charm dissipate the protagonists’ angst — but that’s not Shusterman’s way, no sir.) All these characters are looking to get more out of life than they currently have, and not all of them are yet equipped to identify it, let alone pursue it. By book’s end, they all make surprisingly big strides.

Much of the last third centers on “something big” the Schwa is planning to get himself noticed; for a while, I feared this kid’s cry for help might turn deadly serious, but what Shusterman delivers is a payoff both heartbreaking and riotously funny, and it is so, so much better than anything I could have come up with.

Which is the highest compliment I can make: Shusterman makes original choices and takes surprising veers through his story in a way that even I  — a jaded, blackhearted cynic — found moving. I wish I could write half so well. Better: I wish I could come up with characters half so endearing. Read this one already, wouldja?

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Things That Make Me Absurdly Happy VIII

We went through a pretty heavy Pokemon stage in this household that still had legs deep into this, the fourth grade year. I’m a big believer in the Pokemon game as a teacher of reading, of math and of strategy.

I just never realized it could also be a teacher of Darwinism. Thanks, Threadless, for connecting the missing link for me!

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OK, OK, we saw your epic movie. Now bring on that *other* ‘Avatar’ flick!

Yep, I joined the rest of humanity and saw “Avatar” this weekend. (In Real 3D, not regular 3D — but not XD, because that’s different, though it may be 3D, too? Hard to keep up with the new new…) Anyway, as I sat in a fully packed theater of a film in its fifth week of release, I experienced sort of what I expected.

In the words of my colleague Kat Achenbach: “visuals = POW! ; story = meh.”

Can’t really refute that. Strip “Avatar” of its visual effects, and you get blunt story manipulation that tells you what to feel now, and telegraphs what you’re going to feel in 10 minutes. Greedy corporations, evil! Bloodlusting soldiers, bad! Purehearted natives, good! Not a single surprise to be had for 3 hours. But I’ll give it this: Put those visuals back in, and I stop caring about the overt manipulation, cuz yeah, that was some beautiful glowing-planet porn right there.

(I am intensely curious how this film will play on home movie screens. That big-screen “wow” does all the heavy lifting, so without that, will “Avatar” feel too long, slow and small to warrant repeat viewings at home? It may take advances in the purported 3D TV before this movie is really worth a DVD purchase.)

I’ll admit that as a guy, even when I am cognizant that I’m being fed a pasty lump of story gruel, I’m happy to shelve those objections temporarily when, for example, robots and dinosaurs start blowing each other up.

Like eating too much chocolate, “Avatar” is pure indulgence, and I’m rarely opposed to pure indulgence. Just remember to brush and floss and move on to healthier food tomorrow.

Now that THAT is out of the way…

… let’s clear the decks for the movie of the other “Avatar”: the one that aired first, the one that lured director M. Night Shyamalan, and the one that knew damn well what to do with a story in the three seasons it ran on Nickelodeon.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” may be the best cartoon epic ever. Combining pan-Asian aesthetics, long-form fantasy, fierce kung fu, bone-deep character development and comedy, this cartoon still gets repeat viewing requests in my house, from the 9-, 7-, 5 and 39-year old alike. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko designed themselves an American anime that rises above whatever expectations you may have upon hearing that label. This show, which debuted in 2005, is better than sizzle, it’s smart.

In an imaginary world where martial arts masters can control the elements of air, fire, earth and water, an Avatar is born into every generation who can control all four at once, and thus maintain the balance of power among the nations. After the newest Avatar is frozen in ice for 100 years, he emerges to discover that in his absence the Fire Nation laid siege to most of the world. This 12-year-old boy must now square off against the Fire Lord to stop his totalitarian rule. Along the way, Aang the Avatar meets a cast of deeply developed allies, adversaries and comic foils.

If you want to see 22 taut minutes of storytelling, use Netflix to lay your hands on the fourth disk of Season One to see episode 13, “The Blue Spirit,” which is one of the high points of the series. It’s got everything:

We open with Aang’s companions falling ill to a delusion-inducing fever. Jeopardy!

While he goes after a cure on his own, Aang gets captured by a Fire Nation admiral. Jeopardy times two!

His friends can’t save him — they’re getting sicker by the minute, and Aang carries the cure. But lo, who’s this?

A mysterious intruder! What follows is a furious kung-fu-fueled rescue with ingenious visuals and choreography. At one point, the escapees use giant bamboo ladders to stilt-step between ramparts. Energetic action!

Things get complicated when the Blue Spirit’s methods get murky. Drama!

By the end of the episode, Aang has to make some difficult decisions, endure some sacrifice, confront preconceived notions, and plumb deep feelings of loss and loneliness. Yeah, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but the way “Avatar” does it is graceful and genuine and satisfying. Oh, and it wraps up with a good gag, as Aang’s fevered friends get their cure in the form of frozen frogs to suck. Comedy!

Shyamalan must agree with my enthusiasm, because his live-action version (called “The Last Airbender” as a non-contest surrender in the name-recognition war) has a gorgeous trailer in advance of its July 2 release.

But the other “Avatar” is hogging so much airspace, I’ve barely heard a peep about this film for months. I haven’t gotten a single official e-mail update since I signed up for ’em last summer. These images aren’t even official; just scraped-together flotsam from the Internet:

Apparently, I can expect a commercial during the Super Bowl, and I sure hope so. It’s time to take back the “Avatar” mindspace from the giant Smurf people!

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Borings

I’m certainly no Potter-hater. And it’s not like my opinion would make one farthing of difference to J.K. Rowling’s economy if I were. So it’s purely as a lover of good books and movies that I say: Man, was that “Half-Blood Prince” movie a real yawner, or what?

Exactly! It's like looking in a mirror...

We just watched it on DVD late last night, which very nearly became early this morning, because this movie is so incredibly long, full of scene after scene that is no more than a checklist of “I remember that”s from the book. Do we care that Ron played Quidditch well? That the stalker chick pursues Ron again and again and again? Or even that Harry has a book that makes him super good at potions? (Which must be important enough that the book/movie was named for it; and yet it receives no more than two minutes of use, tops, with no explanation or closure by the finale.)

The action — or the lack thereof — is driven largely by Harry noticing someone looking suspicious, and then following that person to observe them. Harry and his Magical Scoobies always seem to have the best luck when stumbling into Suspicious Walkers and overhearing Vaguely Incriminating Statements or witnessing Plot Altering Events. At one point, dear old Maggie Smith asks them, “Why is it always you three?” to which the moviemakers throw up their hands, too, with a wink and a kind of “It’s the damnedest thing, ain’t it?” response.

Meanwhile, we spend most of the movie building the tension around the villain as he pulls a quilt off a magical cupboard not once, but three times: “Draco Malfoy and the Dramatic Unveilings.”

That’s just in the first two hours. In the final 30, we’re treated to a surprisingly uncharacteristic bit of action, swooping off to a mystery cave full of water zombies and magic lockets and demon rum. As in the book, this abrupt change of scenery felt like Rowling checking her clock and saying, “Oh crud! We haven’t done anything interesting yet, and the book’s almost over.” All the revelations came in a rushed and confused tumble. Where is this cave? How did we find it? Why does Harry have to come along and not, say, Snape or Lupin or Flitwick, or hell, all of ’em? Come to think of it, how many horcruxes have we found already? Do we have any clues about where or what they might be?

All of those questions would have made great cobblestones underfoot of a hero’s quest beginning around page 50 or so. But the real magic of Harry Potter, I suppose, is that audiences have bought so thoroughly into the character of the Boy Who Lived, that Rowling can make her bank on snogging and homework and after-school sports, using just the rarest of dollops of actual journey.

Thankfully, HBP has a sprinkling of treats to make it re-watchable, which I’m sure I will find myself doing as my kids read these books and earn the privilege to watch the movie. It’s clear that Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson have grown into some acting chops as their Harry and Hermione give a deft line reading here, a nuanced facial expression there, that expresses deeper emotion. Nice.

And the film-making is beautiful to watch. Like the other Potter installments, the sets are tasty enough to eat, with lingering shots upon something gothic, grotesque or gorgeous. I like in particular this shot, of Malfoy walking off to his final lonely fate, while the rest of Hogwarts lives on in blissful innocence and shadow snogging:

The depth of field, the lightness and darkness, the contrast in attitudes; it’s like a study in Neoclassical painting, isn’t it? In the end, though, the Harry Potter movies really have become like paintings to me: beautiful canvases that are wide, but not even a little bit deep.

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What’s better than Scrabble? Here’s my two QINTARS worth

You know: a QINTAR, that Albanian unit of currency, 1/100th of a lek … and one of the few Scrabble words that uses Q without a U.

Anyway, I like Scrabble well enough. As word guy, I kind of have to. Haven’t played in forever, but I recently enjoyed a viewing of “Word Wars,” the 2004 documentary about competitive Scrabble. This is great way to spend 80 minutes.

Like “The King of Kong,” the 2007 movie about video game addicts striving for the world’s best Donkey Kong score, “Word Wars” follows four Scrabble masters on the tournament circuit, documenting all the egoists, nutjobs and neurotics who devote themselves wholly to the pursuit of something that doesn’t pay very well.

It’s both a little inspiring and a little depressing. Are these the luckiest guys in the world because they excel at a game they love to play? Or are they driven by demons to pursue unattainable perfection?

Is passion a blessing, or is it a curse?

Well, either way, I know that many people who might otherwise enjoy a word game think of Scrabble like this:

"Well, This Just Really Sucks," T-Shirt from Threadless.com

For those people, I have an amazing solution: Clockwords, the world’s most awesome online word game. It’s more fun to play than read about, so I’ll make this quick.

Clockwords is Scrabble plus Space Invaders. Like Scrabble, you’re given a few letters to work with, but you can type any word using any letters. Use the letters you’ve been given, and you get bonuses. In the game, the words you type empower a machine that runs on language. Once you give it words, that machine fires upon little clockwork spiders that are invading your lab and stealing your stuff. Simple, right?

OK, but there’s an extra element that appeals to the tinkerer, the futzer, the optimizer in all of us. Because as you play, you earn the individual letters that appear randomly in those chambers next to the gun. To optimize the variety of letters you can use — and to get letters with special damage powers — you have to switch over to “The Boiler,” a steampunk chemistry set for words.

Here’s where the magic is. The field on the left is like the bag of tiles from Scrabble — these are the only letters you’ll be given in the game, and you can mix and match this array any way you like. Like Scrabble, certain letters have more power because they are harder to use. If you want a super-damaging Q or Z, you have to “transmute” sets of lower-power letters (combine them). If I were to transmute that Q and Z up there? They would turn into a low-level letter made of “brass,” like that E and A at the bottom. Brass letters explode and spread the damage. Jade letters (the lime-green L) provide greater oomph per letter.

This bit of tinkering is what makes the game for me. What letters do I want to see in my rack? What can I work with? Am I not getting enough easy letters? Do I have too many Ls or Us? Do I need more power letters, or do I have too many?

You can judge my success for yourself. Note that while I failed level 34, I totally killed with QUANTIFY. Man, 423 points? That’s smokin’. (Can you do better?)

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