November 29th–A Very Good Day

Three wonderful authors, for whose work I am very thankful, were born on this date. Any of their books would make lovely Christmas presents.

1. C.S. Lewis
Lewis is the best writer and the most profound thinker of the three, the one whose work will stand the test of time. I predict that Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and Till We Have Faces, in particular, will be read and appreciated a hundred years from now. Because he died fifty years ago on November 22, 1963, he has been remembered with many, many articles and blog posts this month. Here are links to just a few from this year and from other years.
50 Years Ago Today, RIP Jack
Jared at Thinklings: Remembering Jack (2005)
Lars Walker at Brandywine Books: The Feast of St. Jack and The Great Man’s Headgear
Hope at Worthwhile Books reviews Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in Lewis’s space trilogy.
Heidi at Mt. Hope Chronicles writes about her appreciation for the works of C.S. Lewis.
Jollyblogger reviews Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

2. Madeleine L’Engle
Ms. L’Engle is the most likely of the three to have her work become dated. However, the science fiction quartet that begins with A Wrinkle in Time may very well last because it deals with themes that transcend time and localized concerns. And I still like The Love Letters the best of all her books, a wonderful book on the meaning of marriage and of maturity.
Madeleine L’Engle favorites.
In which I invite Madeleine L’Engle to tea in June, 2006, before her death last year.
A Madeleine L’Engle Annotated bibliography.
Semicolon Review of The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle.
Semicolon Review of Camilla by Madeleine L’Engle.
My Madeleine L’Engle project, which has languished this year, but I hope to get back to it in 2009.
Mindy Withrow writes about A Circle of Quiet.
Remembering Madeleine: Obituaries and Remembrances from September, 2007.

3. Louisa May Alcott.
I love reading about Ms. Alcott’s girls and boys even though many people are too jaded and feminist to enjoy books that celebrate the joys of domesticity and home education.
Circle of Quiet quotes An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott on the wearing of blue gloves.
Carrie reviews Little Women, after three attempts to get though it.
Claire, The Captive Reader re-reads my favorite Louisa May Alcott novel, Eight Cousins.
Claire, The Captive Reader revisits Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins.
Sam at Book Chase reviews Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.
Joyfuly Retired sponsored an “All Things Alcott” Challenge in 2010 where you can find links to many posts about Louisa May and her family and her novels.

November 29, 2007: To This Great Stage of Fools.

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

51zSfrFm2DL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_I have a thing about books set in other countries, especially African countries. Africa fascinates me for some reason. A Girl Called Problem is set in Tanzania in the early 1970’s when President Julius Nyerere encouraged Tanzanians to participate in his program of ujamaa, a socialist strategy emphasizing family and collective farming, to improve the economy and the living conditions of Tanzania’s poor and rural tribal peoples.

Wikipedia is not complimentary about the implementation and results of ujamaa:

“Collectivization was accelerated in 1971. Because the population resisted collectivisation, Nyerere used his police and military forces to forcibly transfer much of the population into collective farms. Houses were set on fire or demolished, sometimes with the family’s pre-Ujamaa property inside. The regime denied food to those who resisted. A substantial amount of the country’s wealth in the form of built structures and improved land (fields, fruit trees, fences) was destroyed or forcibly abandoned. Livestock was stolen, lost, fell ill, or died.
In 1975, the Tanzanian government issued the “ujamaa program” to send the Sonjo in northern Tanzania from compact sites with less water to flatter lands with more fertility and water; new villages were created to reap crops and raise livestock easier.”

In A Girl Called Problem the picture of ujamaa is much rosier. In the book the people of the fictional village Litongo move to a new place to participate in President Nyerere’s utopian project. Thirteen year old Shida (whose name means “problem”) believes that she and her mother have been cursed because her father died when Shida was born, but she knows that in the new village she will have a chance to go to school and to learn from the district nurse the thing she wants most to learn, how to be a healer.

Shida’s grandfather, Babu the village elder, tells the people that they should move to the new village, Nija Panda, for the sake of all Tanzania, and most of them do, although some are reluctant and fearful of the ancestors’ curse. This book is largely about reconciling the old ways with the new, what to keep and what to throw out. and about the sources of fear and strategies for confronting that fear. Shida listens to her elders, especially her mother and Babu, but she also respects and wants to learn from her schoolteacher and from the village nurse.

The book tells a good story about a girl coming of age in a time of change and stress, but two things bothered me about the context and setting. First of all, the author strategically ends her story before the failure of the ujamaa villages, a failure which was stark and catastrophic: “Tanzania, which had been the largest exporter of food in Africa, and also had always been able to feed its people, became the largest importer of food in Africa. Many sectors of the economy collapsed. There was a virtual breakdown in transportation. . . . Nyerere left Tanzania as one of the poorest, least developed, and most foreign aid-dependent countries in the world.”

In addition to glossing over the political situation, the author indicates that Shida’s mother is suffering from what appears to be mental illness, and again, as in two other middle grade fiction books that I read within the last month, the mother makes a quick and sudden recovery as a result of no intervention or therapy or anything. She simply decides not to be depressed anymore? If it were that easy, then no one would ever suffer from what we call clinical depression. Maybe Shida’s mom was just being a stubborn, self-centered old lady when she spent two weeks in the darkness, lying on her cot and refusing to move to Nija Panda. However, whatever the issue, sin or mental illness or both, she certainly makes a brilliant turnaround when the story comes to its climax and Mother Shida (women are called by the name of their oldest child) is needed to tie the loose ends together and make the story turn out well.

I enjoyed reading A Girl Called Problem myself, but I wouldn’t recommend it for impressionable middle grade readers who might get the wrong idea about the glorious efficacy of socialism and about the cure and treatment for mental illness and fear and selfishness. Julius Nyerere, who retired from government in 1985 and died in 1999, is still quite popular and even idolized in Tanzania, by the way, and in 2005 a Catholic diocese in Tanzania recommended the beatification of Nyerere, who was said to be a devout Catholic.

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

Betsy-bee loves Blue Balliet’s books–Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game— which incorporate art education and mystery and adventure to make up a lovely, colorful mixture of a read. She might like this one, too, even though it’s different. It’s set in Chicago, but it’s not a Chicago of art museums and art thieves. Instead Hold Fast is about a family of four, Dashel and Summer, the parents, and Early and her little brother, Jubie (short for Jubilation). Dash works as library page at the Harold Washington Public Library, and he’s “a man who love[s] language almost as much as color or taste or air.”

“Words are everywhere and for everyone. They’re for choosing, admiring, keeping, giving. They are treasures of inestimable value. . . . Words are free and plentiful!”

51tNF5vxWjL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The above quote is an example of the way Early’s father, Dash, talks about words and books and learning and, well, life. He’s a whimsical, poetic, word-lover sort of guy, and unfortunately he gets mixed up with a rough crowd by mistake. Early and Jubie and Sum end up separated from Dash and living in a homeless shelter. Everyone, including the police, thinks Dash has run away because he might be involved in criminal activity. But Early knows her father is a man of honor and responsibility. Dash will come back to the family, and they will prove his innocence and fulfill their family dream of having a real house someday.

The book is confusing at first. But if a reader can get past the first couple of chapters, this one is a keeper. Early has a voice that shines, or resonates, or whatever the right word is. And she’s quite as concerned about words and how to use them and treasure them as her father is. I doubt there are many families like Dashsumearlyjubie (yes, that’s what Early calls her family in the book), but I doubt there are many families quite like mine either. Or yours. Happy families are not all the same, no matter what Mr. Tolstoy said, and unhappy families are only happy families that have given up in some way or another. Quirky, unique, eccentric, whatever you want to call us, our families have personalities, too. And I really enjoyed the author’s portrayal of Dashsumearlyjubie and the plot of how they were pulled apart and eventually knit back together through faith and perseverance.

Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne

Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery by Erin Dionne.

“Early in the morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers overwhelmed the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and then spent over an hour alone in the building, stealing thirteen pieces of priceless art. These masterpieces have yet to be found.”

51WX81hz2gL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Now, if that’s not a set-up for a middle grade mystery adventure novel, I don’t know what is. I read this one just after reading Hold Fast by Blue Balliet, and I had to keep reminding myself that Balliet’s novel was the jewel heist. This one was by another author, Erin Dionne, and took place in Boston, not Chicago. Nevertheless, fans of Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer or The Calder Game would probably be drawn into this tale of Moxie Fleece and her friend Ollie and their dangerous, but exciting, search for the artworks stolen from Gardner museum more than twenty years ago.

I’ve read a couple of other books by Ms. Dionne, and I really think she’s hit her stride with this story. Moxie is a little too sassy for my tastes, but no worse than my own twelve year old gets sometimes. And Moxie’s friend, Ollie, is a delight: a science geek who’s into geo-caching. I wanted to adopt Ollie.

“It’s a race against the clock through downtown Boston as Moxie and Ollie break every rule she’s ever lived by to find the art and save her family.” (from the cover blurb)

516E9eC3peL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Other “art theft” middle grade novels:
Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Marvin the Beetle and his eleven year old human friend, James, work together to foil an attempted art theft and forgery of priceless works by the great artist Albrecht Durer.
Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game by Blue Balliet.
Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Framed is a kid caper comedy about Fine Art and Mutant Ninja Turtles. And small town life. And slate mines. And insurance fraud. And family unity.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
Heist Society by Ally Carter. Katarina Bishop is determined to leave the family business behind, but when the family business is art theft, it’s hard to get away–with anything, including a law-abiding life.
Stealing Magic: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure by Marianne Malone. “Ruthie and Jack thought that their adventures in the Thorne Rooms were over . . . until miniatures from the rooms start to disappear. Is it the work of the art thief who’s on the loose in Chicago?”
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt. “A never-before-seen Rembrandt painting has been discovered in Amsterdam. The mysterious man that Kari and Lucas observed must have been working on a forgery! Convinced that no one will believe them without more evidence, the teenage sleuths embark on a madcap adventure to find the forger. But is bringing the criminal to justice worth the price of their lives?”
The Mona Lisa Mystery by Pat Hutchins. “Class 3 of Hampstead Primary School takes a school trip to Paris and lands right in the middle of a mystery.”
Vidalia in Paris by Sasha Watson. “Teenage Vidalia’s summer in Paris studying art settles into a stimulating and enjoyable routine until she becomes romantically involved with a mysterious young man who seems to have ties to an art-theft ring.”
(Descriptions of books I have not read or reviewed come from GoodReads.)

A sequel featuring Moxie and her geo-caching friend Ollie is in the works: Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting by Erin Dionne, due out summer of 2014.