Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman

I think we can all agree that the most pressing question at hand this morning is how have I made it a little over a month without reading, rereading, reviewing, or at least mentioning a book by Neil Gaiman? How?! He was my first foray into a brave new literary world back in the sixth grade when my best friend recommended I read Good Omens (Gaiman and Terry Pratchett). It’s still on my top ten list, and I’ve read it at least twelve times since then. I don’t even have the original copy I owned (a mass market paperback that was easy to hold and had my favorite cover of all the releases) because I’ve lent it out so many times (I think I might be on copy four actually). It’s a small price to pay to introduce others to an author who just keeps surprising me, and who brings a joy to storytelling that’s not just rare, it’s magical.

How many people do you know who write everything from picture books to YA and Middle Grade to adult fiction, and do it well (I mean, award-winningly well)? Oh, did I mention he’s also one of the foremost graphic novelists of our time (and I say that as someone who doesn’t enjoy reading graphic novels because the combination of text and pictures hurts my eyes)? Some of his books have even been made into wonderful films and musicals. I am not overstating his talents in the least when I say he has written something for everyone and if you’ve never had the pleasure, find someone who knows your taste and have them recommend something. Seriously. Because if you don’t, or haven’t, or think he has nothing to say to you, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say you’re wrong. Not that I have strong opinions about this…I’m just saying, brilliant storytellers come along so infrequently, it would be terrible for you to miss out.

Now, Odd is not my favorite, or even close to my favorite of his books, and I still love it. Also, it’s short, and between the visit from my mother and my desperate desire to finally finish watching The West Wing this weekend, I admittedly did not leave a lot of time for reading. I certainly didn’t leave enough time to give a new book the proper consideration it would deserve, so I took Odd out and spent a happy hour with him.

(I’ll warn you right now that I’ll be doing this from time to time – as much as I love to discover new authors and/or new books by already beloved authors, I also have a small collection of books that I love to reread. I can’t just abandon them, these dear friends of mine, so some weeks, you will have to endure my slightly wonky loving on a book that you might never have thought twice about.)

Odd and the Frost Giants is written as a Norwegian folktale, and truly, the quarter Norwegian in me can’t get enough of this sort of book (I recently read another, similarly styled excellent Norwegian tale called Icefall, by Matthew J Kirby, in case you’re into that sort of thing). It works well as a children’s story – simple, straightforward yet elegant language, and a protagonist who is both honorable and, well, odd – but it’s not a childish book. It reads like the best kind of fable, a story that will transport the reader to the icy fields of Norway, if only for a hundred or so pages.

So go ahead and get that cozy blanket out, stoke the fire against these last cold, dark days of January, and venture into a world where winter has settled deeply and seemingly without end…

Chapter 1

  There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. Odd meant “tip of the blade,” and it was a lucky name. 

He was odd, though. At least, the other villagers thought so. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was lucky…(pg 1)

Neil Gaiman can be found on twitter @neilhimself or at www.neilgaiman.com

The Haiku Year, Tom Gilroy, Anna Grace, Jim McKay, Douglas A Martin, Grant Lee Philips, Rick Roth, Michael Stipe

Okay, if we’re going poetry this week, we’re going full-out. One of my favorite books is a little volume  written in collaboration by six people – Tom Gilroy, Anna Grace, Jim McKay, Douglas A Martin, Grant Lee Philips, Rick Roth, and Michael Stipe. It’s called The Haiku Year, and it’s been the inspiration for my longest running writing experiment, a haiku journal.

When I lived in LA, I was beginning to get back into writing after a hiatus of several years, and it occurred to me that I should start keeping a journal again as good practice. I had kept one for about ten years as a teenager and into college, but I fell out of the habit when I graduated. Everything I had written in those journals felt sort of cheesy though, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to censor what I wrote there in case someone should ever read it.

I couldn’t bring myself to pick up that old habit again, so my roommate suggested I try writing a haiku every day for a year. He and a friend in New York had started their own haiku journals a couple of years before after reading The Haiku Year themselves. He lent me the book and I was hooked. I wrote my first haiku on Saturday, August 25, 2007, and I haven’t looked back.

I recently bought my own copy of the book and decided to reread it more carefully; the first time, I tore through it in my excitement to get started on my own project, and I didn’t really allow these tiny poems to sink in. This time around, I was able to better appreciate the tones of the six different authors.

The book is structured to cover a year, but the poems are not attributed to a particular writer, so the journey is (or has been for me) different on each reading. My mood, my age, my experiences as a writer – all of these things have affected how I read it. I’m not even going to include quotes from the text today because I don’t think the intricacy of the project can be conveyed well out of context. The beauty of this book is in how these writers managed to capture so many powerful and beautifully ordinary moments just by dedicating themselves to a short exercise – three lines, once a day.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is that it inspired me four and a half years ago, and 1,446 days later, I’m still excited to capture a moment in my day this way. I don’t think I’ve read many books that have had such a huge impact on my life or on the way I view the world. Maybe this isn’t the book to inspire you, or your children, or your students, or your friends to start something new, but I think the idea of doing one small thing every day for a year – whatever that thing may be – could be the beginning of potentially amazing creative endeavors. And really, what’s better than a book that encourages you to court your own greatness?

Tom Gilroy, Anna Grace, Jim McKay, Douglas A Martin, Grant Lee Philips, Rick Roth, and Michael Stipe can all be found on the internet (but I can’t find them for you today because my mother’s visiting, and family gets priority over web searches!)

The Crazy Man, Pamela Porter

Wait, so, you’re telling me you haven’t read The Crazy Man?! I’m honestly not sure how you’ve gotten through life thus far then, because this book is a game changer. This book should be used with middle schoolers, with high schoolers, with your friends who hate to read (or for those who only “have time” to read blog articles all the live long day but couldn’t possibly finish a novel). This is a book you should read every year to remind yourself as a writer or a reader what innovation can bring to a story. This is a book that makes me love books even more than I already do, and gives me hope as the weird, un-genred writer that I am that there is a place for all kinds of storytellers.

Okay, so maybe I’m just a dork, but I think Pamela Porter did an amazing thing when she took a story for a YA audience and shaped it into a novel of readable, imagination-rich verse. Yes, that’s right, poetry-haters, this is a novel-length poem, and if you don’t read it because of that, you’re the crazy one.

A man from the mental hospital
came by today to check on Angus,
see how he was doing. Mum
and Angus and the man walked
around the fields,
looked at the gardens. I sat
on the porch steps and listened
best I could. The man said Angus
was the best gardener they ever had.

Mum looked at the man. Then
she looked at Angus. “Oh,” she said,
like she’d never thought about
Angus knowing how to do anything
except be crazy. (p 83)

See! Easy! Nothing to be scared of here. No fancy poetic tricks (beyond Porter’s uncanny ability to turn a simple story into a delicious read). No rhyming. No degree in poetry necessary to enjoy this story.

This book appeals to me on so many levels, it just makes me want to pry open every English curriculum and squeeze it in there. It’s such a great introduction to poetry for people of all ages because it’s not intimidating. The story is compelling, the characters well-drawn, the situation believable. The vocabulary is straightforward – it’s in the way she molds the language that brings the story to life. This is break down the walls because story telling should be open to every kind of voice poetry.

Angus was clanking around
in the machinery shed. And Miss Tollofsen
strode straight and tall over to Angus
and stuck out her hand. Introduced herself.

She knew all about him. Everybody in town
knows there’s a crazy man on the loose,
and some insane people are letting him
                                                          work for them.

In her class, she always said
                             every day is a fresh start.
No matter what hijinks
someone had done the day before, or
what condition you came to school in yesterday,
it stayed in that day. Didn’t spill over.

I like that.  (p 85)

I just love this book. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and every time I do, I’m glad all over again. It reminds me of the infinite possibilities we have to create something fresh, something outside the box. When I was in school, I always wanted my teachers to nurture the weird perspectives I brought to my writing assignments, and it always chipped off a little bit of my heart when I got a piece back that I was so proud of, that actually felt powerful and ME-like, with a note in red pencil saying “Re do or Zero.” I was a conscientious student, so I would go home and rewrite it into exactly what that teacher wanted to hear with tears in my eyes and a feeling of shame. Like the work I thought was so special was worthless…

Years later, I still get stories rejected more often than accepted, but I’ve conquered the fear that the part of me that sees the world differently is not the best part of who I am as a writer. The thing I worry about now is all those students who don’t. Who see that red note and decide to stop trying. Or who think their unique voice is not worth hearing.

This is a book for students like that, and for teachers and parents and librarians and friends who need a reminder that the story-teller inside of us should be free to experiment. To tell our stories in the very best way we can – unabashedly, and with great faith in the power of our own voice.

Pamela Porter doesn’t appear to have a personal webpage, but plenty of interviews, quotes, and poems can be found on the internet.

Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye

Every once in a great while, I find a book that is a balm for the soul. Simple and elegant, it shows me the wider world without forced drama. It is subtle. Powerful, but in the way a good soak in a hot bathtub is – soothing, strong, and rejuvenating. I hardly ever find stories like it, that just leave me at peace.

Habibi completely took me by surprise. My mother recommended it after she visited Israel in the fall, when I was asking how her impressions of the Middle East aligned with her preconceived notions, but I had forgotten about it. Now my in-laws are getting ready for their own trip to Israel next month, and the very strangeness that they would all be traveling there within a few months of each other, when none had ever been before, made me curious again.

Full disclosure: I love to travel, and have been fortunate enough to visit many countries, as well as to have had the opportunity to briefly lived abroad. When my mother asked me if I would like to come with her on this trip though, I said no. It’s hard to believe, now that she’s back safe and sound, that I didn’t jump at the opportunity, but my entire life has been saturated with the day-to-day tragedies of that region, and I just wasn’t brave enough to visit myself. One of my best friends is Jewish, and is hoping to have the opportunity to visit herself, and she told me, “Israel is not somewhere to go unless your heart really wants it.”

Having read Habibi, I could see how the heart might really want it. I loved Nye’s descriptions of the villages and cities, of the Dead Sea and the Bedouins, of the culture of precarious balance.

“With so much holiness bumping up against other holiness, doesn’t it seem strange Jerusalem would have had so much fighting?” Liyana said. (loc 763)

This novel has a real gentleness to it that isn’t often used when approaching the topic of conflict in Israel. Liyana and her family move from St Louis to her father’s hometown between Jerusalem and Ramallah just as she’s about to begin high school. The frustration in this culture shift is not over-played, and yet Liyana’s loneliness is tangible. The pace of the story – of a girl adjusting to a more conservative culture, to a new language, to a world far from  the neighborhood where she was born, where even the corner grocer knew her by name – is lilting; it almost reads like a diary in verse.

“Liyana, you must be patient. Cultural differences aren’t learned or understood immediately. Most importantly, you must abide by the guidelines where you are living. This is common sense. It will protect you. You know that phrase you always hated—When in Rome, do as the Romans do? You must remember, you are not in the United States.” As if he had to remind her. When she went to bed that night, she pressed her face into the puffy cotton pillow. It smelled very different from the pillows in their St. Louis house, which smelled more like fresh air, like a good loose breeze. This pillow smelled like long lonely years full of bleach. (loc 658)

As she begins to find her place in this new life, I couldn’t help but be sucked into her big, talkative, cheek-kissing family, the tentative friendships she builds with people outside of her Palestinian heritage, the new foods that she lovingly describes.

When you liked somebody, you wanted to trade the best things you knew about. You liked them not only for themselves, but for the parts of you that they brought out. (loc 2680)

I know I’ll still be nervous when our family travels there in a few weeks, but a part of me will also be longing to walk those same streets and see that part of world in a new, richer light.

Naomi Shihab Nye doesn’t appear to have a personal webpage, but plenty of interviews, quotes, letters and poems can be found on the internet.

420 Characters, Lou Beach

One of the worst moments of college was, for me, the first day of my Seminar in Poetry. I was getting my BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, and I was constantly discovering how much more seriously other students took genre.  I didn’t have any interest in limiting myself to just one area of writing – I loved poetry, but I also loved screenplays, and novels, and short stories, and children’s books – and on the first day of that class, when our professor asked us to speak, not about our favorite poem, but our favorite poet, I realized I was never going to fit in with these people.

I had no favorite poet, other than my mother, who had put together a binder full of all the poems she had ever written about me a few weeks before I left for school. I had no technique for picking out the writing I loved; when a story or poem or paragraph moved me, it just became a part of who I was then. I hardly ever paid attention to author, instead choosing books by the first few pages or the recommendation of a friend. Most of my memories in libraries, or at my parents bookshelves were of just grabbing books and digging in. If they were good, I kept going, if not, I put them away –  no feeling either way about the person behind them. (This is a picture my husband took on one of our first dates, at City Light Books – probably the truest picture anyone’s ever taken of me.)

I remember being mortified on that first day though, sweaty with the fear of having nothing to say. And it was as awful as I thought it would be when it was my turn (the professor never liked me and the other students didn’t respect me), but ultimately, the memory of that moment has led me to the realization that I don’t have to like books or writers the way anyone else does. One of the privileges in this country we often overlook is our right to read what we want. I think we forget it while we’re still very young – when we’re told whether we’re good readers, whether we know how to parse assignments well, whether our interests are deserving of attention. I was lucky to have been encouraged to read widely when I was young. We read together as a family, we had our own library cards, we talked about what we had read at school and at home. Books were a passion for us.

One of the reasons I love to read so much YA (besides the fact that authors in that genre keep working hard to prove how incredible they are) is that I want to find the key to getting more young people to love reading as much as I did and do. One of my goals in posting here each week is to discover a wider range of material, books that might appeal to tastes a little different from mine. 420 is one of those books. It wasn’t written for a young audience; in fact, Lou Beach is most well-known for his work in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Time. This book, a collection of tiny stories he originally posted on Facebook (FB’s updates used to be limited to 420 characters), is his first work in prose. These stories are “populated by heartsick cowboys, random criminals, lovers, and drifters,” and it seems to me they have the potential to speak to an audience much younger than he may have intended.

I really love that flash fiction and ultra short stories are starting to regain footing in popular culture. I’ve always loved them, but I know that most people associate reading short stories with high school English class rather than appreciating the genre for what it is – the perfect cure to the “I don’t have time to read” excuse.

Danny and I stand outside the church, fidget in our muted plaid sport coats. Maybe not muted enough. An old guy in a tuxedo walks up to Danny and hands him some car keys. “What’s this?”  says Danny. “Aren’t you the parking valet?”  says the guy. “No, I’m the best man.” The guy walks away and we see him later inside. He’s the father of the bride. “Oh, it’s going to be a fun reception,” Danny says, taking out the flask. (pg 55)

It’s fun for me to pick up his book, open it anywhere and read a paragraph like this. I can take it with me through the day, or lay in bed thinking about the little worlds he creates when I’m trying to fall asleep. Not every story is perfectly crafted – a downfall of trying to fill 170 or so pages with such tiny bites of writing – but enough of them are that I can’t wait to see what Beach works on next.

Find out more at http://www.loubeach.com/

Holiday

Today is Monday, and I’m sorry to report that I have no book to share with you. If I had been really smart, I would have read something short on Friday, written about it, and coerced WordPress into publishing it this morning. Instead, I faffed around looking forward to the long weekend and woke up today in a panic. Could I find something to read and post about in between going to visit our dear friends’ new baby in the city and preparing (then devouring) Wafflepalooza? With my husband around to distract entertain me?

I think we all know the answer to that is a definitive “no.”

I’ll be back tomorrow though with a special Tuesday edition of J’adore…

The Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes

One of the things I’ve discovered about this project, even just these few weeks in, is that I so desperately need two manageable books a week, everything is fair game – that book my husband picked up on a whim at the used book store, the novel my friend’s cousin recommended, a list given to me by a friend who just became a middle school librarian…now that I’ve started asking, it seems like everyone has a book they love that I have to read, and that alone makes this worthwhile. So many well-loved stories crawling out of the woodwork! It’s literary Christmas!

The Ninth Ward is another recommendation from my mother; she was reviewing it for Audiophile magazine and told me the reader was so wonderful that she wasn’t sure if whether that had influenced her opinion on the story itself. Nevertheless, this book did win the Coretta Scott King award, and it’s about Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic event that significantly affected the first decade of the new millennium, so I decided to give it a try.

Having never been to New Orleans, I don’t believe I can fully appreciate the treasure that was lost when the levees broke, but as a citizen of the world, I can’t help but be drawn to the destruction that has and can be wreaked by nature. I’m fascinated by stories that illustrate how fragile we are as human beings. This unassuming novel does just that.

I think quiet before the storm means it isn’t really quiet. Maybe it means only now you can hear birds flying, forming a V overhead. Or that the air has sound. That it whistles, low and deep, as a storm approaches. Quiet before a storm maybe means folks are done hammering wood across their windows and placing sand sacks beside their front doors. Or maybe it means there’s loneliness. A weird loneliness that is, yet isn’t, real. (loc 1058-1061)

I felt I was walking the streets of Lanesha’s neighborhood with her, slowly being introduced into a world of subsistence living that rises above desperation and instead champions, at its darkest moment, a tenacious twelve-year-old girl.

I wasn’t sure you were going to be all right. The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. Your testing should’ve come much, much later. But when it came, you shined with love and strength. (loc 1381-1383)

This story was so well-paced, so captivating, it allowed me to get past the fact that I didn’t love the protagonist’s voice. I doubt it would have worked in a longer novel, or with less compelling material, but I was able to gloss over certain stylistic choices that were made with the dialogue. I don’t argue that it may be realistic, even an appropriate choice, but I suspect The Ninth Ward works better as an audio book in that respect – it’s wonderful to listen to a well-rendered dialect – but reading to myself, it feels…stiff. Unnatural.

My feelings partially come from the recent realization that television, movies, and the internet have largely done away with the subtler dialects in this country. The friends I have from Tennessee or Georgia or Boston or Texas may occasionally slip into local slang, but the cadence of language has largely become homogeneous. Consequently, I can believe the older characters, such as Lanesha’s adopted grandmother, might sound this way, I have a harder time believing children do.

That being said, Rhodes does a wonderful job taking a recent historic event and turning it into a carefully plotted and not at all unbelievable adventure. It’s sweet and sad and frightening, a story the reader can easily imagine playing out a hundred different ways. I particularly loved the development of one of the supporting characters – an odd, isolated neighbor boy who, under just the right circumstances, is able to bring to life that singular essence of friendships in childhood.

He lifts his head and wipes his eyes. He looks far-off. For a minute, I think he’s going to be his quiet old self, and pretend to disappear. Then, he says softly, “Fortitude.” “Strength to endure.”

“That’s right. We’re going to show fortitude.”

TaShon and I scoot closer, our arms and legs touching. I put my arms around him; he puts his arms around me. Neither of us moves. I know we are both thinking, murmuring in our minds, over and over again, “Fortitude. Fortitude. Fortitude.” (loc 1819-1823)

To find out more about Jewell Parker Rhodes, check out http://jewellparkerrhodes.com/