Archive for July, 2009

Boys Will Like MATISSE ON THE LOOSE, An Energetic Story of Mistakes and Mishaps

Dear Reader,

I just read Matisse on the Loose, a novel written by Georgia Bragg for readers 8-12. Matisse is an average 11-year-old boy with an embarrassingly UN-average family.

“My family is like the sun. It’s dangerous to look right at them. You have to look at them through a little hole in a box.

“For starters, Dad has his barbecue. It was specially made out of two oil drums welded together. Then Dad added the wheels with shock absorbers. It can hold a sixty-pound pig… He wheels it to pool parties, soccer games, and funerals—whatever—if someone’s paying him, he’ll be there.”

Matisse likes to kill time by forging the paintings hung in the museum where his mother works as head of security. His paintings look like the real thing, too real, so when he impulsively switches his painting with an original by Henri Matisse, he sets off a chain of problems that will take a genius–or a barbecue?–to resolve.

You’ll laugh at the predicaments Matisse gets himself into and smile as he “thinks” his way out of them.

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ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER is an Excellent Novel

Dear Reader,

I loved Also Known as Harper, a novel written for readers age 10 and older. Author Ann Haywood Leal captures 11-year-old Harper Lee Morgan’s southern-tinged voice, her desire to win her school’s poetry contest and thereby read her poems into a microphone, to shield her little brother from their father’s abandonment, and her desire to lessen their mother’s stress over being evicted from their home. By the way, her mother’s favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee.

Leal lets Harper poetically and clearly describe what she experiences. For example, Harper has a stare down with an elderly woman pushing a wheelchair, and then Harper says: “She slowly turned and wheeled off across the parking lot, as if she was starting out fresh with another day.

“The thing is, a person getting stared down like that would be downright creepy. But not from this old lady. I didn’t know what it was, but looking at her got my brain going every which way, thinking about this and that, and it put me in the right mood for some good poetry writing.”

She describes dilapidated houses she finds: “They were definitely old houses I could see peeking through the trees up ahead. But not good ones. They weren’t just the used kind of old. They were the broken-up forgotten kind of old. The kind that smelled like a closet in the basement.” (I think “broken-up forgotten kind of old” is an amazing phrase.)

Harper goes through plenty of hard times, but in the end she’s able to step away from her own misery and empathize with her arch enemy’s pain. Harper changes, and so will Leal’s readers.

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THE LAST OF HIS KIND: THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF BRADFORD WASHBURN, AMERICA’S BOLDEST MOUNTAINEER, a dull biography

Dear Reader,

Author of The Last of His Kind David Roberts clearly knows his mountaineering history, and mountaineering fans will clearly appreciate it. He ties Bradford (Brad) Washburn’s climbing adventures to what is happening in the greater world of climbing during those times, including lots of names and places and expeditions. He’s thorough, and kind of boring, until the last third of the book when he writes with vigor about his interactions and friendship with Washburn.

I read Robert’s book because I wanted to learn what made Washburn “the last of his kind,” what made him put himself through what he did. He was driven, demanding, socially awkward with women, intelligent, single-minded, practical, a visual thinker, and competitive. He loved his wife lots.

I didn’t learn what made Washburn tick. I think I would have been more entertained and informed if I’d read instead his wife’s memoir The Accidental Adventurer: Memoir of the First Woman to Climb Mt. McKinley.

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The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture

Dear Reader,

The Onion movie reviewer Nathan Rabin’s memoir The Great Rewind starts off fine enough, hilariously and semi-heart-breakingly covering his early years, his father’s illness, his biological mother’s faults, and his stay in a mental institution then a group home, all while employing the descriptive language of the men of his time. (“Suckitude,” for example.) He cleverly ties chapter headings to song lyrics or movie lines, thereby his link to “pop culture” and the book’s subtitle.

But then something happens: Rabin veers into long-winded essays about his experiences with a failed cable movie review show most readers won’t care about and his depressingly unhealthy romances, most readers won’t care about. Then his concluding chapter seems to undo much of what he wrote in the preceding chapters. In a few rushed and unconvincing paragraphs, he says he’s led a good life. What about everything that happened? What did he learn?

What I most wanted to read about is what led Rabin to be good at writing movie reviews—he has to be good to write for The Onion. Yes, his father plied with lots of old musicals and he discovered musicians mostly on his own, and this influenced him, but how did he learn to write? How does he keep his audience? Where is he going with his career?

Note: Rabin overuses “doppelganger,” a fun word that should be used sparingly so as to not lessen its effectiveness.

Another Note: Knowing Rabin writes for The Onion, I keep wondering if most of his story is bullshit. If so, good for him. His style reminded me a bit of Hunter S. Thompson’s. A compliment, I believe.

Still One More Note:  I love the book’s cover.

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