Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1) by Lemony Snicket


Previously, all I knew about this book was that it was made into a movie starring Jim Carrey. Just from the commercials, I thought Jim Carrey's character looked so unpleasant that I had no desire to see the movie or read the books! But when I came across this series at the local library, I figured I'd give it a chance.

I very much enjoyed the actual writing. The narrator's voice is kind and reassuring, and the story unfolds as if the narrator is telling the story out loud to a group of children. He even has an amusing way of defining potentially difficult words.

The children, too, I grew to like. Though Sunny is just a baby and has little personality beyond her tendency to bite things, I appreciated Violet's inventiveness, and Kraus's love of reading. The only time I felt disappointed in any of the children was when Kraus uncovered Count Olaf's nefarious plan, and instead of discussing next steps with Violet, he went ahead and confronted Count Olaf by himself, which clearly was not a wise thing to do.

So, why the middling rating? I have to admit, I like to feel uplifted by what I read. True to its title, this book really is about a series of unfortunate events. The poor Baudelaire children! But, more than just disliking this book's lack of cheeriness, I was really put off by Count Olaf. He was a villain through and through, and honestly, he creeped me out. He wasn't just mean and greedy. His actions skirted the edges of pedophilia.

Now, I am curious to know what becomes of the Baudelaire children, and so I think I will probably pick up the rest of the series in due time. However, I am in no rush, and I don't think I will be recommending this book to my children. If they pick it up themselves, at least I'll have read it already, and will be able to have some conversations with them, as necessary, about death or the law or whatever.

Friday, June 20, 2014

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg


I dare say, the title of this book was half the fun of reading it!

I was first made aware of this book when another book made an oblique reference to it. This book had an impressive fan base, and I was intrigued. I finally got around to checking it out of the library, and I read it aloud to both Isabelle and Sebastien. We all enjoyed it!

Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler's third-person narration in itself is not especially noteworthy, but her asides to Saxonberg, her lawyer, were entertaining, and it was fun to consider that the entire book was an account being outlined in a letter.

I admit, I didn't really understand why Claudia wanted to run away in the first place, though I did understand her reasons for delaying her return. I identified with her knack for organization, as well as Jamie's budgeting skills. I can see the draw this book would have for many children - Claudia and Jamie have an exciting adventure living rather comfortably all on their own. Though the siblings fight, they clearly have a supportive, loving relationship. The statue they encounter in the museum adds an element of mystery. And having it all take place in New York City, with a recurring risk of being discovered by museum guards, just made the story all that more interesting.

In the end, everything was wrapped up in a nice pretty bow, but Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler's presumed ongoing relationship with Claudia and Jamie just seemed a little too perfect, especially since it came on rather suddenly. And it bothered me that the kids - who were otherwise exceptionally well-adjusted and reasonable - never felt any remorse for having run away, never even gave a minute's thought to how their parents must have been feeling during their absence. Also, even though the book was clearly portraying a type of fantasy for runaways, it still came across as just a bit too easy.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that this book includes a short conversation about "dope addicts". I ended up having to give my kids a watered down explanation of drugs. The recommended age range for this book is 8-12 year olds, but because of the dope reference, I think it might be better suited for the upper end of that range.

Gravity (2013)


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

With its dramatic soundtrack, Gravity was certainly suspenseful, but mostly, it was a visual film.

Big words come to mind in describing this movie. Existential... Metaphorical... Sandra Bullock's character died a metaphorical death when her daughter died, but still she managed to cheat actual death. Given a second chance, she had a re-birth (complete with in utero imagery) in overcoming her daughter's death. Given new life - literally and figuratively - she physically takes her first steps on earth as a new person.

The images of people actually being "lost in space" - in more ways than one - was pretty unsettling.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh


I remember this book being very popular when I was a kid, but I had never read it. As it was with all those Beverly Cleary books, I just felt it was high time I read this one.

I really enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure, at first, if I would like Harriet. She was certainly precocious, but came across a little know-it-all-ish. Also, since her family is wealthy - they employ a cook as well as a nurse / nanny for Harriet - I wasn't sure if she'd be relatable. But, the more she wrote in her notebook, and the more she behaved like any other kid, the more I appreciated her.

Summaries of this book usually focus on how Harriet's notebook gets into the wrong hands, but she actually doesn't lose the notebook until a little more than half-way through the story. Mostly, I find this book is about people. Just people. As Ole Golly, Harriet's nurse, says, “There are as many ways to live as there are people.” And Harriet is keen on trying to understand all the people she encounters. Her astute observations and insights, the social commentary and self-reflection, all had quite a lot of depth, especially for someone who is supposed to be 11 years old.

I liked that this book takes place in Manhattan. When I sat down and thought about it, I don't think any of the other children's books I've read recently take place in a big city! It's always a suburb, or a farm, or a small town set in the old days. It was nice to have a setting with a bit more excitement.

What really impressed me about this book, though, was how it was able to depict, in a way accessible to children, the true horrors of bullying and the cycle of abuse. Certainly, when Harriet lost her notebook and all hell broke loose, there was plenty of blame to go around; Harriet was not blameless. However, there is no denying that Harriet was mercilessly bullied, and then what happened? Being bullied made Harriet angry, and made her lash out in retaliation, despite that type of behavior being entirely out of character for her. All too frequently, those who are abused will turn around to become abusers. Luckily, Harriet's parents did care about her (even if they did mostly outsource her upbringing), and Ole Golly came through with her spot on child-rearing expertise.

So, why not 5 stars? Well, as with other books I've rated 4 1/2 stars, the book on the whole was great, but there were just a few small things that didn't sit right with me. I mean, I understand that Harriet was practicing her spying in preparation for becoming a spy when she's older, but I was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of her actually sneaking into other people's houses, and looking into the windows of strangers!

Also, this book was published in 1964, when there wasn't the hypersensitivity to gun violence and terrorism that there is today. I'm definitely a product of current times, because it did give me pause when guns were mentioned early on, even though it was mostly harmless, in the context of bad guys in a story Harriet was making up. But also, Harriet's friend Janie really gave me the creeps. Not only was she always talking about blowing things up - and doing dangerous chemistry experiments in her room to reach her goal! - but the illustrations of her really made her look disturbing. Oh, and, the word "stoned" was used twice, and that didn't seem appropriate for the lower end of the recommended age range for this book, which is grades 3-7.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen


This version of the classic fairy tale was retold by Amy Ehrlich and illustrated by Susan Jeffers.

Perhaps obviously, I was inspired to read The Snow Queen after watching Frozen, which was loosely based on this story.

Certainly I can see how Frozen was seeded by ideas from The Snow Queen. In this book, there is a brief mention of trolls, a child's heart is frozen by being pierced by a sliver of a broken mirror (in the movie, a child's heart is frozen by being pierced by ice), there is a Snow Queen, there's a reindeer, and in the end, someone is saved by someone else's love.

That's pretty much where the similarities end, though. In The Snow Queen, a young girl named Gerda leaves in search of her childhood friend Kai, who was lured away from home by the Snow Queen, and she has lots of adventures along the way. It's kind of rambling, and maybe her search even comes across as kind of a quest. She encounters more than one old woman who knows magic, but luckily none of them are evil. She crashes the honeymoon of a princess and her new prince, she runs into a band of robbers in a forest, and she teams up with a friendly reindeer.

Happily, the story ends well, and it had all sorts of elements that made it fairy tale-ish: magic, talking animals, flower gardens, something of a lesson in stranger danger. I guess I didn't give it a higher rating mostly because the title character remained a mystery. She wasn't exactly good - she did basically kidnap Kai - but she wasn't exactly evil, either. Who was she, really? Also, the young robber girl confused me, too. She wanted to play with Gerda, and she ultimately helped her on her mission, yet she liked to see animals suffer, and she threatened to kill Gerda herself. I just didn't get her.