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Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. SchmidtIf you can force yourself to get past the harshness of the first couple of chapters, the teen novel¹ Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt blossoms into a moving story about…well, a little of everything.  Doug Swieteck is an eighth-grader who moves to a small town in upstate New York in 1968.  He’s the youngest boy in a family of abusive males, with the oldest brother off fighting in Vietnam. Imagine hiding what you care about to keep it safe from your own family, knowing that eventually it will be found and taken away.  This pretty much sums up Doug’s family life.  A new town should mean a fresh start, but Doug is too unhappy to notice at first.  Then he discovers Audubon’s Birds of America at the local library.  The arctic tern, diving straight down into the water with a “terrified eye,” captures his imagination.  Honestly, this is one of those books that you don’t want to ruin by telling too much about the plot.  Out of context, it might sound silly, and it’s not.  There are a couple of things that are farfetched, but by that point you’ll be under the book’s spell and willing to suspend your disbelief.  I recommend Okay For Now, especially to anyone old enough to remember the Apollo 11 mission.  Just for the record, my father dragged me out of bed to witness the moon landing, even though I was only five.  He wanted my brother and me to watch and remember, conveying to us how really amazing that moment in history was.  Well, this book isn’t quite as amazing as that, but I’d still like to drag you over to it, put it in your hands, and hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

¹Children’s book?  Middle school novel?  Who even cares?  A good book is a good book.  
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Don’t Go to Pemberley

Warning:  This review may contain plot spoilers, although I’ve done my best to avoid them.

After being on a long wait list, I finally read P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley this week.  I really love Pride & Prejudice, so a murder mystery using Austen’s characters seemed like a fun idea.  I’ve read most of the previous mysteries by P.D. James, and I admire her work.  I didn’t read any book reviews in advance, but I did glance at the readers’ ratings at Amazon.  They were pretty evenly divided across the range from “love it” to “hate it.”  I’m afraid I have to agree with the folks that gave it two stars out of five.  I forced myself to finish the novel because I wanted to find out whodunit, but it was a trial.

My problems with Death Comes To Pemberley are directly related to what I love about Pride & Prejudice.  I so enjoy the intelligent conversations between the characters, especially Darcy and Elizabeth.  I don’t know if people ever really spoke like that, but it’s a lost art.  P.D. James is not able to re-create anything close.  Most of the conversations in her novel are dull, describing actions instead of being real dialogue.  Here’s what Darcy has to say to Elizabeth on page 150: “Lady Catherine, as expected, has passed on the news to Mr. Collins and Charlotte and has enclosed their letter with her own.  I cannot suppose that they will give you pleasure.  I shall be in the business room with John Wooller but hope to see you at luncheon before I set out for Lambton.”   Worse, Elizabeth and Darcy are rarely together, so they have very little connection with each other.  Elizabeth is the perfect wife, going about her wifely duties and taking morning visits to the nursery, but apparently a married woman can no longer take part in anything interesting.  Because she’s so darn respectable, Elizabeth cannot attend the inquest or the murder trial.  She’s not even in the room when “all is revealed.”  Here is a book by a woman based on another woman’s book featuring some of the best female characters in literature, and all the women are relegated to the background.  Perhaps James is more comfortable writing about male characters like Darcy, Wickham, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, but I miss the ladies.

The central mystery isn’t all that engaging, and the description given on the book jacket is deceptive.  Almost every character has a solid alibi, so there are very few suspects.  No one character takes on the role of “sleuth” to solve the murder.  By the time the same characters have given the same testimony to the magistrate, the coroner, and the trial lawyers, I just wanted it to be over.  There are some contradictions in the details, which should have been caught by the editor.  On page 68, it’s said about the murder victim, “He’s not a heavy man.”  Later, on page 101, it reads “[The victim] was a heavy man.”  A general editing error appears on page 130: “It was consider that either Colonel the Viscount Hartlep or any member of the Pemberley household could have had any part in [the victim’s] death.”  Huh?

I’m going to finish by simply letting the book speak for itself.  This is one of the longer speeches in the novel, given by the Pemberley housekeeper to Elizabeth on page 70:

“I will sit with Mrs. Wickham until Dr. McFee arrives, madam.  I expect he will give her something to calm her and make her sleep.  I suggest that you and Mrs. Bingley go back to the music room to wait; you will be comfortable there and the fire has been made up.  Stoughton will stay at the door and keep watch, and he will let you and Mrs. Bingley know as soon as the chaise comes into sight.  And if Mr. Wickham and Captain Denny are discovered on the road, there will be room in the chaise for the whole party, although it will not perhaps be the most comfortable of journeys.  I expect the gentlemen will need something hot to eat when they do return, but I doubt, madam, whether Mr. Wickham and Captain Denny will wish to stay for refreshments.  Once Mr. Wickham knows that his wife is safe, he and his friend will surely want to continue their journey.  I think Pratt said that they were on their way to the King’s Arms at Lambton.”

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Not So Dumb

“Don’t worry about wanting to change; start worrying when you don’t feel like changing anymore.  And in the meantime, enjoy every version of yourself you ever meet, because not everybody who discovers their true identity likes what they find.”

This is my favorite quote from Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John.  I wish somebody had said that to me when I was eighteen!  I read this book because it was on a list of award-winning children and teen books, having won a  2011 Schneider Family Book Award, which “honors an author or illustrator for the artistic expression of the disability experience for adolescent audiences.”  Frankly, I’d never even heard of the Schneider Family Book Award.  I just liked the description of the story.  

Piper is a senior in a Seattle high school, and she’s deaf.  She’s also funny, gutsy, and whip smart.   Without actually planning it, she finds herself the manager of a rock band called Dumb, and she’s got one month to get them a paying gig.  Her misadventures with the band force her to come out of her shell.   She learns who the people in the band really are, and she also gets to know the strangers she lives with, namely her parents and younger brother.  (Any more than that and I’d be spoiling it, and I hate spoilers!)

I think part of the reason this book resonates with me is because I was a photographer for a band for a couple of years, and I knew as much about music as Piper.  I went to the recording studio, to rehearsals and to gigs with my band, and when they asked me how the music sounded, I would just smile and mumble nice things.  Honestly, I didn’t have a clue, but I sure liked the way they looked.  I learned a lot about life during those years, but music is still a foreign language to me. 

I really enjoyed Five Flavors of Dumb.   It had me laughing out loud, and I recognized the characters and related to them.  The relationships felt real, and I also learned a little bit about deaf culture and Seattle’s rock history.  I’m not sure the band using MySpace instead of facebook is current enough for a book published in 2010, but perhaps there was a permission problem with the publishers.  At least they weren’t using twitter!  (My love/hate relationship with twitter is long-standing.)  

Read this book, and tell me what you think!

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Rich People Behaving Badly

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Dead End Gene Pool is a memoir by the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, another in a long line of books about severely messed up families. In the book jacket photo, the author Wendy Burden looks like she’s in her mid-thirties and possibly a sister to Reese Witherspoon. In reality she’s 55, so either the photo is old or those genes ain’t so bad. The rest of the photos on the book jacket are intriguing but frustrating, since they are never explained anywhere. I want to know who the people are and what they’re doing. I assume they’re some of those wacky family members the author describes inside.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. It’s certainly vivid, and parts of it are unforgettable, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Burden describes her dysfunctional family in such brutal detail, you end up feeling like you’ve been caught staring too long in fascination at a car wreck. It’s certainly a remedy to any misplaced belief that tons of money can buy happiness. This family she describes has everything material they could want and nothing emotionally that they need.

Burden’s description of their material wealth includes a drawer-by-drawer inventory of her grandparents’ bedroom and office. Her grandparents loved food, so much of the book is focused on various chefs, kitchens and elaborate meals. This attention to detail can be almost cruel when she’s describing her family. Her grandmother had chronic gas, so the book does too, punctuated by variations of “brrrfffttt.” As a little girl, Burden would wander into her grandparents’ bedroom when they were undressed, and she leaves nothing to the imagination here, either. Later in the book, she details the physical deterioration of her elders, and her drug-addicted brothers, with the same unflinching honesty. I found myself wishing she’d shown a little more compassion or at least some discretion. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly, Burden claims she left out the “real dirt,” so you can’t help wondering…

Burden was a little girl filled with rage, and she certainly had reason. Her father committed suicide when she was six, so she and her brothers were shuttled back and forth between a neglectful mother and grandparents who treated her brothers like princes because they happened to be born with a Y chromosome. She was surrounded by adults who were either related by blood diluted by copious amounts of alcohol or chemical imbalances, or who were paid staff unprepared to cater to the emotional needs of a neglected rich kid.

How you feel about this book will depend on your reaction to this bratty, sad little girl.

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