Books About OCD

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Multiple ChoiceToday, you blog readers get some personal information about me and a list of books for the price of one blog post. (That is, free.) You see, today’s topic is children’s and teens’ books about OCD, a thing which I happen to have. As the particularly clever ones among you may have guessed, this is not a mere coincidence. My OCD is in fact the reason that it occurred to me to write such a blog post. Interestingly enough, it was a fictional book that first alerted me to my OCD tendencies. I was probably about fourteen or fifteen and I had checked out a book called Multiple Choice from the library. I don’t remember what drew my attention to it. That was before I entered my Scrabble phase, so the Scrabble tiles on the cover didn’t have much to do with it. But for whatever reason, I checked out that book, and I identified with the main character so closely that it came as a shock to me when I looked at the Library of Congress Subject Headings on the title page and saw “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” and “Mental Disorders”. (Yes, I went through a phase where I always checked the Library of Congress Subject headings in books I read. I guess I was always meant to be a librarian.)

This post has been a long time in the writing, because it took me a while to find and read a bunch of fictional books on OCD. Despite the frequent manner in which the phrase “OCD” is thrown around, there isn’t a whole lot of literature on the actual disorder. My original intention had been to evaluate each book on its accuracy, but what I did find was all quite descriptive and accurate. Each of the authors either had OCD themselves or had done thorough research on the topic. So my discussion of these books will mainly consist of plot summary. I’m also rating them on a five-point scale.

Ten Turtles on Tuesday by Ellen Flanagan Burns, 2014.

This book teaches its readers what OCD is by relating the experiences of a girl named Sarah. Sarah counts obsessively, and when she tells her parents, they take her to a therapist. By the end of the book, Sarah has learned how to ignore her compulsions without becoming anxious. On the one hand, Sarah’s story is very informative in the way it describes her symptoms and treatment. On the other hand, it doesn’t make a very interesting story. There’s really no plot aside from Sarah’s OCD. Also, the book looks like an easy reader in terms of its format and illustrations, but is written at a second-or-third-grade level and is much longer than an easy reader. As a general rule, independent readers don’t like books that look like little-kid books. So this is not a book I would recommend, even though I think it’s nice that there’s a book out there that describes OCD in a way that young children can understand.

Reading level: About 2nd grade

My rating:  Two points

Total Constant Order by Crissa-Jean Chappell, 2007.

It’s early in freshman year of high school when Fin is diagnosed first with depression and then with OCD. Her mother doesn’t want Fin on medication, so Fin takes the medicine in secret. But she is so bothered by the side effects that she quits, not realizing that the withdrawal effects of psychiatric medications are even worse than the side effects. Meanwhile, Fin turns to a new coping strategy: graffiti. This book is more about the relationships Fin has with her mother and her friend Thayer than about Fin’s depression and OCD, and it wasn’t exactly my kind of book, but I’m going to give it a middling rating anyway, because it was pretty well written, if not especially memorable. One thing that I liked about it is the stream-of-consciousness narrative in the opening chapters. Fin’s out-of-control thought process shows the reader a very clear picture of how she experiences OCD symptoms.

Reading level: 7th grade and up

My rating: Three points

OCD Love StoryOCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu, 2013.

The first time seventeen-year-old Bea meets Beck, he’s having a panic attack during a power failure. The second time she meets him is when she’s diagnosed with OCD and starts attending group therapy sessions, and he’s in the group. Bea’s obsessions take the form of being excessively careful while driving, saving disturbing news stories,  and listening in on a couple’s therapy session before her session. She thinks she’s a little less OCD than Beck, who is compulsive about exercise, cleanliness, and the number eight. And she perceives herself as being much more functional than Jenny, who pulls her hair out, or Rudy, who picks at his face and makes hostile remarks in group. But as the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear just how much Bea is affected by her disorder. She isn’t just a little obsessive; she’s a stalker. This book is one of the best ones on the list, both because it’s well-written and because Bea’s thought process does such a good job of depicting OCD. I really related to Bea even though my own experiences with OCD have been extremely different than hers.

Reading level: High school

My rating: Four points

Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser, 1998.

As a description of what OCD is like, this book is great. As a novel, this book is mediocre. It doesn’t have a plot beyond the narrator Tara’s description of what OCD feels like and how it impacted her preteen and early teen years. Most of the characters are stereotypes, and in fact, Tara’s friend Keesha is such a stereotypical token black friend that it’s borderline racist. One perk about this particular book, though, is that it includes some pretty specific information about what exactly OCD is. I feel that I actually learned something about how the brain works. Although I do take issue with the way the characters describe OCD as a problem in chemistry rather than a psychological disorder. Psychological disorders are abnormalities in brain chemistry and neurological processes.

Reading level: 7th grade and up

My rating: Two and a half points

Mr. WorryMr. Worry by Holly L. Niner, 2004.

I hadn’t really expected that there would be a picture book about OCD, but there is, and this is it. Kevin worries a lot and has a very specific bedtime routine. Just as in Ten Turtles on Tuesday, the plot consists entirely of Kevin beginning therapy for OCD and ends with him overcoming the symptoms. It’s not the most fascinating book out there, and it’s a little text-heavy for a picture book, but I actually quite liked the illustrations, and I felt that it was pretty thorough about describing what OCD feels like. In fact, there were two aspects of Kevin’s situation that really resonated with me that I haven’t seen in other places. When Kevin is told to do something, he feels compelled to double-check with adults to make sure he’s doing it right. When I was a kid, I sometimes would ask permission multiple times just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I usually would laugh it off, saying that I forgot if I had already asked. It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about that. The book also shows Kevin being afraid that his mother is an alien, which is an oddly specific fear that I also had as a child, although for me, it was part of a longer and complex narrative. Again, it had never occurred to me that such a thought was an OCD thing. The point of all this is just that I thought that this book was quite informative, despite its relative lack of plot.

Reading level: K-2nd grade

My rating: Three and a half points

Multiple Choice by Janet Tashjian, 1999.

This book is pretty dated, and it’s old enough that it’s a bit hard to track down, but I thought it belonged on this list since it’s the aforementioned book that introduced me to OCD and made me wonder if I was OCD. Fourteen-year-old Monica Devon worries and obsesses about everything, but she thinks she’s found an escape when she invents a game that entails making decisions based upon randomly drawing Scrabble tiles. But sometimes, the Scrabble tiles lead her to unkind or unwise choices, and Monica’s mental problems compel her to act on those choices anyway. Based on what I wrote about it above, I think it’s pretty obvious that I found it to be well-written and memorable, and that I think it’s an extremely accurate depiction of what OCD is like. However, after reading all of these other books, I now feel that Multiple Choice is just a little emotionally flat.

Reading level: 6th grade and up

My rating: Four points

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten, 2015.

Almost-fifteen-year-old Adam Ross is in love with Robyn Plummer, the new girl in his OCD support group. This book tells the story of their developing romance, Adam’s experiences with his OCD symptoms, and the family drama and trauma that fills Adam’s sophomore year of high school. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s well-written with a memorable and likable cast of well-developed and believable characters. It’s also very engaging and very emotional, especially near the end. As a YA romance, it’s an exceptionally good book. On the other hand, I could tell before I got to the Q-and-A with the author at the back of the book that she herself doesn’t have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’m not discounting the extensive research that she did, or the knowledge that she picked up from knowing OCD people. But the way she describes Adam’s thought process doesn’t always ring true. Another thing that bothers me about this book is that the main characters show an extreme lack of empathy for people whose symptoms vary slightly from theirs. For example, Adam can’t comprehend eating disordered compulsions, and is very annoyed by a group-mate’s hypochondriac obsessions. But I’m willing to concede that it might be the character’s perceptions rather than the book itself that poses a problem for me. So, all in all, I would definitely call this a good book, but not one of the more informative ones on this list.

Reading level: 7th grade and up

My rating: Three and a half points

OCD, The Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn, 2013.

Danielle is a high-school senior at a special school for students who struggle academically despite having normal IQs. In Danielle’s case, the issue is OCD, ADHD, and (spoiler alert) trauma from witnessing the violent death of a friend when they were in eighth grade. The story of Danielle’s senior year is told through a collection of her English assignments, letters to and from various people, and journal entries. I didn’t exactly love this book and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that. Because Danielle has ADHD as well as OCD, her experiences and symptoms are very different from what I’ve experienced, and I don’t think I know quite enough about what it’s like to have ADHD to try to gauge its accuracy.

Reading level: High school

My rating: Three points

Don't TouchDon’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson, 2014.

Cadence Finn—known to family and friends as Caddie—is going through a lot of changes. Her parents have recently separated, and she is switching to a performing arts high school. There, she reunites with Mandy, her ex-best friend and fellow actress, and joins Mandy’s social group. She even gets cast as Ophelia in Hamlet. Anyone would feel a little stressed, but Caddie is completely overwhelmed by anxiety. Her fear of touching people becomes so intense that she must wear gloves at all times, and if anybody does get through her barriers and touch her, she has to “wash it off.” It isn’t until more than halfway through the book that her problems are specifically described as OCD, but it’s pretty clear all along. There are so many things I love about this book. For one thing, Caddie has things going on in her life besides her OCD: school, acting, friendship drama, a crush on her costar, family drama… It’s so much more realistic than books in which the characters’ mental and emotional problems are the entire plot. Also, this book takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, which is where I went to college, so, for me, it was a nostalgic reading experience. It’s a great book from a literary standpoint, too, because the characters are distinct and well fleshed-out, there’s notable character development, it has the emotional depth that’s characteristic of good YA fiction, and the pace and writing style are just right to make Don’t Touch a pageturner. But, for the sake of this blog post, the main thing I want to point out is that Caddie’s thought process really resonates with me, and probably with any other readers with OCD. Even though I’ve never had the particular obsessions and compulsions that Caddie does, I am happy to give it my stamp of accuracy. (Metaphorically speaking, because I don’t actually have a stamp of accuracy. That would be so cool if I did.)

Reading level: High school

My rating: Five points

2015 Youth Media Awards: Results and Remarks

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So I hear that there was a really special episode of football this past weekend. Everybody on the internet has been talking about it. Apparently, Katy Perry was the guest star and there were dancing sharks involved. But more importantly, this weekend was the ALA Midwinter conference, which means that Monday morning was the announcement of the Youth Media Awards. This is the truly important stuff, I tell you.

It had been my intention to write a “Guesses and Wishes” post on Sunday and a “Results and Remarks” post for Monday, but I was lazy and it did not happen. So here is my Wednesday evening post on the topic, and anytime I say that I totally called it, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. This isn’t going to exactly be the most thrilling blog post that I’ve ever written, because it’s going to include a lot of lists of titles, but that’s okay, because it’s a very important matter of current events.

 

Schneider Family Award

Rain ReignThis one is for books that deal with disabilities. I didn’t read up on the award enough to know whether it specifically had to be the protagonist who has a disability, so I didn’t have specific guesses in mind. (I’ve read quite a number of juvenile and YA books this year in which the protagonist’s parent suffers from PTSD, and a few others in which a protagonist’s parent is physically disabled.) The two books that came to my mind right away were Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign and Cece Bell’s El Deafo. Rain Reign did indeed win the middle grade category, which made me happy because it’s a good book and does an excellent job at giving the perspective of someone with an abnormal thought process. Neither of the other two winners—A Boy and a Jaguar for younger readers or Girls Like Us for teens—were books that I had read.

 

Stonewall Award

The Stonewall award is for LGBT books. I thought that the clear winner for this one would be Beyond Magenta, which is a nonfiction YA book in which each chapter is the narrative of a transgender teenager or young adult. It was named as an honor book, along with I’ll Give You the Sun and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, neither of which I have read. The winner, This Day in June, isn’t one that I was familiar with, either.

 

Coretta Scott King Awards

FirebirdThe Coretta Scott King Awards are named for the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., and they are African-American specific. As well as illustrator and author awards, they include a lifetime achievement award, (Deborah D. Taylor) and a new talent award (Jason Reynolds for When I was the Greatest). I was pretty pleased about When I Was the Greatest because, although it was not one of my particular favorites, it is well written and it does give a very vivid, thorough, and sympathetic portrayal of a not-very-privileged, predominantly African-American community. I’m proud to say that I accurately predicted the winners for both the illustrator and author awards: Firebird (by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers) and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson respectively. Then again, neither of those was exactly a shocker. Of the five titles that were named as honor books for one a Coretta Scott King Award, I’ve only read one of them, and for some reason I had thought that it was a 2013 book. (That was Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker)

 

YALSA Awards

YALSA stands for Young Adult Library Services Association, so all of their awards (with the exception of the Odyssey) are specifically for teen readers. To be honest, I haven’t really kept up with 2014 YA books. I would have loved to see Grandmaster or The Art of Secrets win a YALSA award, but it didn’t happen. I’m going to sort of skip over this section just because I have read hardly any of the books involved and don’t have much to say about any of them. Although I was happy to see that The Family Romanov was a finalist in the nonfiction category and that A Snicker of Magic was an honor book for the Odyssey, which goes to juvenile or YA audiobooks.

 

Pura Belpre, Mildred L. Batchelder, Robert F. Sibert, Theodor Seuss Geisel

blog I lived on butterfly hillI’m lumping these all together because they’re less major awards with narrower scopes, and because I didn’t have specific predictions about any of them. I’m also skipping over a couple awards that aren’t awarded to specific books, because they’re just less fun. The Pura Belpre is for Hispanic American books. (It’s worth noting that there are conspicuously few American children’s books with Hispanic authors or protagonists considering how many Hispanic American children there are, and that this is a problem) The illustrator award went to Viva Frida and the author Award went to I Lived on Butterfly Hill. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with either of those or any of the respective honor books. Come to think of it, I guess I only read two books that would have been eligible for this year’s Pura Belpre, and neither one of them, in my opinion, was really worthy of an award. The Mildred L. Batchelder award is for books that were originally published in another language and then translated; I’m guessing that the award was created specifically because such books are not eligible for the Newbery. This year’s winner was Mikis and the Donkey, which I have not read, nor am I familiar with either of the honor books. In retrospect, it occurs to me that My Heart is Laughing, which has gotten a lot more attention than any of those books, was eligible, but I didn’t especially love that one, to be honest.  The Robert F. Sibert award is for nonfiction. Of the five honor books, I’ve read three of them and two of them (Brown Girl Dreaming and The Family Romanov) were, in my opinion, pretty obvious choices. The winner, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is not a book that I have actually come across, but it looks really awesome. The Theodor Seuss Geisel award is for early readers. I didn’t see many 2014 early readers that I thought were especially great, so it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t even recognize the title of the winner, You are (Not) Small, or either of the honor books.

 

Randolph Caldecott Award

blog The Adventures of BeekleThese last two are the big ones. Unfortunately, I haven’t done the greatest job of keeping up with really recent picture books, so I wasn’t really equipped to make predictions about the Caldecott. I did have a few particular favorites, such as The Midnight Library and Baby Bear, but they didn’t get enough attention that I really expected them to win. This year’s Caldecott committee named six honor books, which struck me as being the biggest surprise of the whole awards announcement. Six is an awful lot of honor books. Still, I was only familiar with one of them, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, which, for the record, I think is a great book and I was happy to see it named as an honor book. I was not familiar with this year’s Caldecott winner, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, but it sounds good and I’m looking forward to tracking it down and reading it. But I would just like to point out that, if it is about an imaginary being who is searching for a real/unimaginary friend, my sisters and I came up with that idea years ago. True story.

 

John Newbery Award

blog CrossoverI had some pretty specific predictions for this. I thought that Brown Girl Dreaming was the most likely winner, but that Rain Reign and The Madman of Piney Woods also were relatively likely, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if the winner turned out to be Revolution or Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, or maybe even The Fourteenth Goldfish or Nest or The Meaning of Maggie. I also would have loved to see Greenglass House win, although I wasn’t really expecting that. But it wasn’t any of those; it was The Crossover. That was a disappointment because I hadn’t read that one, but fortunately my library’s eBook copy was available, so I was able to read the whole thing within a couple hours of the announcement. It was pretty good; I’m no longer disappointed about the results, but I’m not particularly thrilled about it, either. The honor books, El Deafo and Brown Girl Dreaming, are both books that I read quite a while ago and liked enough that I was pretty pleased to see them named as honor books.

 

So, now that we know what won all of the 2015 awards, it’s time to start obsessing over the 2016 awards. I’ve currently halfway through The War that Saved My Life, which is really good and could possibly become a Newbery contender, and The Way to Stay in Destiny is next in the stack.

Particularly Awesome Books of 2014

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I decided a couple weeks ago that a good way to kick off the new year on my blog—and a good way to end the super long blogging break that I have accidentally taken—would be to make a list of particularly awesome books that came out in 2014. (For those of you who don’t know me, I work in a library, so paying attention to awesome new books is a kind of major part of my life now, which is really cool.) I don’t actually read grown-up books very often, so I have only included children’s books and YA books. Before I actually start the list itself, I want to add a little disclaimer saying that I haven’t read every single awesome children’s book that came out this past year. There are some things that are popular and have received a lot of critical acclaim that aren’t on my list, but probably would be if I had read them. I’m going to try to make up for that a little bit by mentioning a few books that I intend to read soon and expect to really enjoy. I suppose I should also acknowledge the fact that this list is my personal opinion, not based on an objective standard or a group consensus, which is why I did not title this post “The Kaleidoscope49 Book Awards”. But those of you who are taking the time to read this paragraph can feel free to call this list “The Kaleidscope49 Book Awards” in your head, because that’s what I’m doing. Also, these descriptions should not be considered official reviews because I’m using first person all over the place. So, with all that being said, here is the list.

Picture Books

Quest by Aaron Becker

This book is an example of the fact that picture books are not only for preschoolers, which is something that my library school professors frequently mention. I would recommend this book for ages 5-12. Yes, I know that’s not what the publisher and reviewers say, but this is my blog here and I say what I want. Deal with it. Quest is a wordless picture book that shows two children going on a magical adventure. The plot is very complex and a little ambiguous; it leaves plenty of room for readers to decide for themselves what is happening. Although the artwork is more detailed, this book reminded me of the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, because some of the pictures show the main characters drawing their setting. I thought this was a lovely book both because of its artwork and because it was a non-stereotypical expression of an extremely common theme: the magical powers of imagination.

The Midnight LibraryThe Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

I picked this book at random for a review that I had to write for a class, but I ended up believing that this is a particularly noteworthy book. Needless to say, the review that I wrote was quite positive. The general gist was that the plot is fun, the tone is calm, and the linocut print illustrations do a perfect job of establishing the nighttime setting. (The only colors used are black, dark blue, and light orange.) I also specified that I would recommend this as a bedtime story or a library storytime book for ages 4-7.

This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris

My inner preschooler laughed hysterically at this one, and I anticipate that a lot of real preschoolers will react in the same way. Duck is trying to make a movie about Moose, but Moose is being silly. He doesn’t want to act like a normal moose; he wants to be an astronaut and fly to the moon. Along with a cast of other strangely-behaving animals, he escapes the confines of the moose lifestyle and goes on an adventure to outer space.  I suggest this one for ages 4-6.

Baby Bear by Kadir Nelson

The basic plot is a common one—Baby Bear is lost and looking for his mother, and he stops to converse with one forest animal after another. Predictably, the book ends when Baby Bear’s mother finds him. What sets this book apart is the beauty of the artwork. I can imagine this book making an excellent bedtime story for kids under the age of four-ish, but I also imagine that the grownup reading it aloud would enjoy it just as much, if not more, than the child.

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean

Bad Bye Good ByeYes, it’s a picture book that doesn’t even use complete sentences, but no, it’s not just a simple concept book. It has a poetic rhythm, a complete plot, and illustrations that deserve more than a brief glance. One of the things I love about this book is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed by a wide age range. I’ll say babies through kids age six, but I can imagine older readers liking it, too. My mock Newbery class named this as one of our honor books, and you can read what my professor had to say about it here.

On My To-Read-ASAP List

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers

FirebirdI feel bad for not having already read this book, partly because I am genuinely excited about its existence, and partly because I have actually held it in my hands and flipped through it. Obviously, one reason that I want to read it is because it has received a lot of positive attention, is presumably popular with kids, and is most likely a Caldecott contender. But I also have personal interest in it because of my ballet background. Besides, I like and admire the author as a dancer, so I would be very happy to be able to say that she has a lot of merit as a writer, too.

Early Readers

The Big Fib by Tim Hamilton

To be honest, I didn’t exactly love this book. I liked it, but I’m not sure I really want to classify it as “awesome”. But I’m including it on this list because all of the newish early readers that I did think were awesome turned out to be more than a year old. But The Big Fib definitely deserves some credit. It takes a skilled writer to tell a full story using a limited vocabulary, and Hamilton definitely accomplishes that. The protagonist and his dog go on an adventure of imagination, with the use of their neighbor’s boxes. When she discovers them and asks what made such a mess, the boy lies and blames the wind. But he feels bad and confesses, and in the end, makes a friend of the neighbor. The Big Fib is written at about a first-grade level, although an advanced kindergartener could manage it, and a younger child might enjoy hearing it read aloud.

Days of the Knights by Robert Neubecker (Tales of the Time Dragon Book 1)

Days of the KnightsRed the Time Dragon takes Joe and Lilly back in time to the year 1200 and gives them a dragons-eye view of the Middle Ages. This book is approximately a second-grade reading level and will probably appeal mainly to readers who already are interested in knights, dragons, or the Middle Ages, or who have a strong appreciation for time travel stories. I, personally, love time travel stories, so I thought this was an incredibly cool idea for an early reader series. But I am willing to acknowledge that it has a somewhat limited audience.

Graphic Novels

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El DeafoAnthropomorphic rabbits are used to give an autobiographical account of Bell’s experiences as a hearing-impaired child. Not only does Cece have to face the challenges that come with the disability itself, but her conspicuous hearing aid impairs her social life—or at least, so it seems to her. Over the course of the book, Cece makes and loses several friends. Aside from the fact that the characters are rabbits, this book makes it easy for readers to relate to Cece’s experiences, both the ones that are a result of her deafness and those that are common to most children. Although it deals with somewhat sad subject matter, El Deafo has a very light tone that makes it a fun quick read. The graphic novel format makes it very accessible for a wide range of reading levels; I’m going to say it’s for children in first to eighth grade, even though it normally doesn’t make sense to recommend a book for such a broad age range.

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Telgemeier’s previous book, Smile, told an autobiographical story of orthodontic woes among other childhood experiences. Sisters follows it up by telling about another aspect of the author’s life growing up: her relationship with her younger sister Amara. Although it covers events occurring over a wide time range, the majority of the book takes place on a long, stressful road trip. I would attribute this book’s popularity to its realistic portrayal of family relationships. I can see it succeeding with a wide age range of readers. I’m going to say third grade through early teens.

Chapter Books

The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wright (Magic Shop Book 1)

The only thing that Mike is particularly good at is getting in trouble. His neighbor Nora, on the other hand, is smart and talented, and he has to spend every afternoon with her after school. One day, they stumble upon a store called The White Rabbit, which sells antiques and gag gifts, and, best of all, magic supplies. The store owner begins to teach Mike magic tricks after Mike solves a puzzle that baffles even Nora. And Mike finally discovers that he does have a talent for something, after all. This is a great book for second-through-fourth graders who can relate to Mike or who like magic tricks themselves. In fact, the book includes detailed instructions for each of the magic tricks that Mike perfects.

Lost in Bermooda by Mike Litwin (Welcome to Bermooda Book 1)

I got this book on interlibrary loan and read it because I was trying to decide if this is a series that my library should get. I think it’s a definite yes, but at this point, I’m going to wait until the third book comes out. If I remember correctly, that’ll be early this spring. The premise of the story is that there’s an island inhabited by anthropomorphic cows, who believe that “hu’mans” are mythical monsters. But then a human boy shows up on their island. Dakota (the boy) and Chuck (a calf) become friends.  Most of the humor is geared towards second-grade boys, although children of the female variety might also like this series. I think that my elementary-school-aged self would have made a point to keep up with the series.

Annika Riz Math WhizAnnika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Franklin School Friends Book 2)

Annika has a knack for math, but her two best friends don’t understand what a useful skill that is. Annika is delighted when her teacher suggests that she participate in a Sudoku contest at the public library. Surely, winning a prize for something number-related will prove the value of math skills! A subplot shows the three girls working together on cookies to sell at a school event, but something goes wrong with every batch, and each mistake gives Annika an opportunity to lecture her friends on the importance of mathematical accuracy. Although Annika’s one-track mind would be annoying in real life, it makes for a nice and neat chapter book  in which every passage contributes to the point. Although most children’s books feature a protagonist who is slightly older than the intended reader, this book is an exception. Annika is in third grade, and her story is best suited for readers of the same age.

On My To-Read-ASAP List

Soccer on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca (Magic Tree House Book 52)

Soccer on SundayConsidering that I love this series and recommend it frequently, I feel like quite a hypocrite for not having read the latest few additions to the series. This one came out in late May, just in time for the World Cup, and it was so popular that neither of my library’s two copies spent much of any time on the library shelf until just recently.

Novels in Verse

Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

This book drew my attention because, unlike most novels in verse, it doesn’t deal with profound or tragic subject matter. It’s a fairly light-hearted read about a fairly typical girl going through fairly everyday problems. Suzy’s annoying little brother is receiving a hero’s treatment, one of her friends is being wrongly accused of petty theft, and another friend has gotten a part in a play for which both girls had auditioned. When Suzy becomes fascinated by Emily Dickinson, she decides to emulate Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle, but she discovers that being a recluse isn’t easy. Although Suzy herself turns twelve early in the book, I would suggest it for a younger audience, perhaps second through fourth grade.

A Time to DanceA Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

I’ll admit that part of my appreciation for this book comes from a biased standpoint. I love reading books about dancers that give a sense of how much dedication and effort goes into serious dance training. Although I’m not familiar with Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance style that Veda studies, I do know from personal experience that any type of dance requires its advanced or upper-intermediate students to dedicate their lives to it, and Venkatraman clearly shows how important dance is to Veda. But when Veda is injured in a bus accident, half of her right leg is amputated and it appears that her dreams are gone. The novel shows Veda slowly regaining her physical abilities and rediscovering her identity as a dancer. I would recommend this book for readers (particularly dancers and dance-lovers) between the ages of twelve and seventeen.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s autobiographical novel in verse has been one of the best-received juvenile books of the year. It has already won the National Book Award and has been mentioned in pretty much every best-of-the-year list for juvenile books. I actually do not think I’d put this in my top five or even my top ten. But it is definitely a good book that shows an inspiringly proficient mastery of language and that gives a honest and vivid portrayal of Woodson’s aspirations to be a writer, her experiences with racism, and her perception of the pop culture of the day. The tone is more nostalgic than anything else, despite the various problems and hardships that it includes. I actually think that, despite being written at an upper-elementary school level, this book holds more appeal for an adult audience than a child audience. So I’m going to classify it as being for ages ten and up, even though that’s unhelpfully vague.

Children’s Novels

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night GardenerIrish orphans Molly and Kip begin working for a family that is hiding some dark, mysterious secrets in this novel that features themes regarding storytelling and wishes. I think that this is a really great book for skilled readers in fourth to eighth grade who have the ability but not the interest to read grown-up classics. The style of the writing and the complexity of the plot is reminiscent of nineteenth-century literature, but the characters are children and it contains some high-action scenes that keep it child-friendly. (Although that term isn’t normally used for something as creepy as this book. It’s creepy in a likable way.) It’s a little hard to pigeonhole The Night Gardener into a particular genre. It’s technically historical fiction, since it’s set in Victorian rural England, but it’s fantastical enough that it seems inaccurate to not call it fantasy. I’ve also seen it classified as horror.

Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick (Pumpkin Falls Mystery Book 1)

I can’t remember exactly why I felt compelled to read this particular book as soon as it came in at the library, but I definitely went into it with the expectation that I was going to really enjoy it, and I did. Twelve-year old Truly Lovejoy has just moved to a small town in New Hampshire. It’s her father’s hometown, and he is taking over at his parents’ bookshop, partly because they have joined the peace corps, but mostly because he lost an arm in Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD, and everyone agrees that the change in scenery will be good for him. Truly isn’t happy about the move, but she loves her new house and she comes to love helping out in the bookshop—especially once she discovers an old letter hidden in a rare copy of Charlotte’s Web. This book is a mystery, but it’s not your typical crime-solving mystery. Truly’s mystery is one that has to do with the recent history of her community and her family. The small-town New England winter setting is well developed, as are the personalities of Truly and her family and new friends. It might be a little on the cutesy side, but sometimes, cutesiness isn’t a bad thing. I’d recommend Absolutely Truly for readers in fourth through eighth grades.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

Initially, the title and first chapter of this book seem to have little to do with the rest of it. Ellie is under the impression that her goldfish has lived an exceptionally long life until her mother admits that she has been secretly replacing the goldfish each time it dies. Then the book switches to its real point, a narrative in which Ellie’s mother brings home a boy who turns out to be her father—Ellie’s grandfather—who has discovered a scientific formula that has turned him into a teenager. But these two beginnings come together nicely as the book goes on to discuss the philosophical significance of Ellie’s grandfather’s rejuvenation. Most of the book is a light-hearted read that derives humor from the grandfather’s inability to act like a kid, but it makes some thought-provoking points about the power and danger of major scientific breakthroughs. This book requires some suspension of disbelief; not only is the basic premise unbelievable, but the characters’ reaction to the situation is unrealistic. Still, The Fourteenth Goldfish does a fun job of finding a halfway point between science fiction and realistic contemporary fiction that could appeal to fans of either genre. I’d say it’s written at a fourth grade reading level, but it could certainly hold appeal for older readers as well.

A Snicker of MagicA Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

This was one of my absolute favorite books of the year, (we’re talking top five here, maybe even top three) but I admit that it isn’t for everyone; it requires a very high cutesiness tolerance. I guess I hadn’t even realized until recently that I actually really appreciate cutesiness in middle grade novels, but I guess I do, if this list is any indication. A Snicker of Magic tells the story of Felicity Juniper Pickle, a likable but painfully shy sixth-grader whose family has just moved to her mother’s hometown of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee. Midnight Gulch, we are frequently reminded, used to be a magical place, but all that’s left now is a snicker of magic: ice cream flavors with fantastical properties, a cast of kooky residents with unusual abilities, and a legendary history that sends Felicity and her new best friend Jonah on a mission to uncover the town’s historical secrets and bring the magic back to Midnight Gulch. I’d recommend this book for readers in fourth through eighth grades, but again, only for readers with a high tolerance for cutesiness.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

This is another one that is geared towards a very specific audience, but this time, that’s not because it’s cutesy. Greenglass House is a complex mystery that takes place in a hotel at Christmastime. Milo, whose adoptive parents run the hotel, is fascinated by the mysterious guests’ backstories and the history of his own home, which seems to be connected to each of the guests’ reasons for being there at that particular time. His new acquaintance Meddy convinces him to draw up a character for a roleplaying game and to use that character to investigate the secrets of Greenglass House. Milo and Meddy become Negret and Sirin, and their adventures in Milo’s own home will fascinate a certain subset of nerdy kids. (For the record, when I call kids nerdy, I say that with a great deal of affection. Nerdy kids are cool.)I feel like this is a fairly advanced book; I wouldn’t recommend it for kids younger than eleven or twelve unless they were especially skilled readers. Although I do know of a very bright third grader who might like it. I think I’ll suggest it to her next time I see her.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

This book tells about the events occurring between the eleventh and twelfth birthday of an academically gifted but naïve protagonist. Her father suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, her mother works as a hotel maid to make ends meet, and her oldest sister Layla has taken on a lot of responsibilities and emotional burdens, but Maggie is too preoccupied by academic pursuits and sibling rivalry to notice. Even after she learns of her father’s diagnosis and does some research on the disease, Maggie is naïvely optimistic about his future. My impression is that Maggie is an unreliable narrator; her portrayal of her sisters as superficial “hot” teenagers is clearly biased and inaccurate, and her perception of her own extreme intelligence and potential is hard to take completely seriously. I found myself feeling very sorry for Layla; if this book was told from her point of view, it would be a real tearjerker. But coming from Maggie, it contains a lot of light-hearted humor, fun eighties references, and trivial everyday happenings in between the family’s woes. I think this book is best suited for readers in fourth through sixth grades, but a slightly younger reader could probably handle it.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles (Sixties Trilogy Book 2)

RevolutionTwelve-year-old Sunny lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she witnesses the Freedom Summer of 1964, in which “invaders” come from colleges up North to encourage the “negroes” to register to vote. Sunny herself is white and has never thought to question segregation, so she isn’t sure what to think of everything that’s going on in her community. Wiles paints a picture of racism and the civil rights movement that is made especially vivid by the inclusion of pop culture references. (For example, Sunny and her friends love the Beatles.) Some chapters come from the point of view of Raymond, a black boy who is experiencing Freedom Summer from the same town but a very different perspective. Between some of the chapters, there are primary documents including a variety of photographs and quotations, some of which deal with racial controversy, and others of which deal with unrelated news events or pop culture. Revolution is a pretty long book that includes lots of “big words” and advanced subject material, so I think this book is best suited for readers who are at least as old as the protagonist herself. (That is, twelve years old) It is worth pointing out that this is the book that won the mock Newbery in my mock Newbery class. It was on the National Book Award’s short list and is probably a major contender for the actual 2015 Newbery.

On My To-Read ASAP List

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

I have already checked this book out from the library and have read the very beginning. It showed up on some Best-of-2014 list somewhere, and the plot summary sounds interesting. Apparently, it’s based on Han’s Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and takes place in a museum. Ophelia’s defining personality trait is evidently her logical and scientific mind, which sounds like a interesting premise for a character who is the protagonist in a fantasy story.

The EscapeThe Escape by Kathryn Lasky (Horses of the Dawn Book 1)

This is another one that I should have read ages ago. It’s been out since January, and I happen to know that my seventh-grade sister (who was in sixth grade then) really liked it. I’m actually not a big fan of books told from an animal’s perspective, as this book apparently is, but I have enjoyed Lasky’s historical fiction writing, so there’s a good chance that I’ll enjoy her animal fantasy writing, too.

The Secret of the Key by Marianne Malone (Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventures Book 4)

I started this series on audiobook, since I spend a lot of time driving and it has turned out to be efficient to use that time listening to audiobooks of children’s literature that I should have already read because it’s so popular. I have listened to the first two books and just checked out the print version of the third book. I haven’t even started it yet, so I probably won’t get to book four for a little while, but I’m enjoying the series so much that I feel very confident in saying that The Secret of the Key is great, too. The series features best friends Ruthie and Jack, who discover a magical key that enables them to shrink down so that they can enter the miniature Thorne Rooms on display in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the record, those miniature rooms exist in real life, and I am sorry to say that I’ve never seen them, even though I have spent a good deal of time in Chicago.

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

Rain ReignI’ve read an excerpt and a plot summary of this book, which is about a girl named Rose who has Asperger’s and is fascinated by homophones. Her dog is named Rain, which gives rise to the book’s title. Apparently, Rain goes missing, and Rose’s search for her is the basic plot of the book. It sounds somewhat interesting but not particularly remarkable, but I’ve heard so much praise for it that I’m definitely interested in reading it for myself.

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan (The Heroes of Olympus Book 5)

The Heroes of Olympus series is basically a subseries of the popular Percy Jackson books, which I have only just barely started even though I should have read them long ago. After all, my own teenage sister is one of the many Percy Jackson fans, and so are many of the kids I meet in my job in the library. It will likely be a while before I actually get to this book, but I’m including it on this list anyway because it’s essential that I read it sooner or later.

Young Adult Novels

GrandmasterGrandmaster by David Klass

This is another one that definitely goes on my top five favorite books of 2014, maybe even in the number one or number two slot, and it’s not just because I like chess. (In fact, although the book takes place at a chess tournament, it actually doesn’t have much to say about chess strategy itself.) Daniel Pratzer is a newby chess player at a private high school where the chess players are the cool kids. Little does he know that his father was once a teenage grandmaster—that is, until his popular chess club classmates suddenly take notice of him and demand that he and his father join them for a parent-child chess tournament. Daniel’s father reluctantly agrees, and over the course of the tournament, Daniel slowly learns about the emotional breakdown that led his father to give up chess years ago. This actually isn’t the type of book that I normally like, because I’m a bigger fan of fantasy and time travel than of realistic contemporary fiction, and Grandmaster has some scenes that could be described as being sappy. But this book works very well and I found it to be very engaging and memorable. Most reviews recommend it for ages 12-17, and I’ll concur with that even though it’s pretty broad. Daniel is a freshman, and the reading level isn’t very advanced, so it may be slightly better suited for the younger half of that age range.

The Art of Secrets by James Klise

The Art of SecretsThis one is kind of a crossover between children’s fiction and YA fiction. The characters are mostly juniors and seniors in high school, but it’s written at a level that will work just fine for readers as young as sixth or seventh grade, maybe even younger. Still, I could see a highschooler thoroughly enjoying this book. Saba Khan’s family’s apartment has been burned, evidently as a hate crime, but things seem to be turning out just fine when some of her classmates set up a charity auction. Even better, one of the items to be sold is valuable artwork that Saba’s classmates happened to find and generously contributed to benefit Saba. But then the artwork is stolen, and the investigation is only turning up conflicting leads. The story is told through a string of journal entries, letters, and the main characters’ sides of conversations with reporters or police. The conclusion of the mystery comes as a compete surprise—or at least it did to me—but the real appeal of The Art of Secrets has less to do with the mystery than with the interesting format and the complex relationships between the characters, who all seem to have preconceptions about one another. This was the other book that my mock Newbery class named as an honor book.

On My To-Read ASAP List

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This has been, without a doubt, one of the most popular and important YA books of the year. Maybe not quite as big of a deal as Eleanor and Park (from 2013) turned out to be, but pretty close to it. I’ve already started it, and to be honest, I’m not enjoying it as much as I had expected so far. The protagonist Cadence has suffered from what seems to be brain trauma at her wealthy family’s vacation spot. She had gone swimming at night, but she doesn’t remember the details. I guess I had been expecting this to be a sort of mystery story, in which she tries to learn what exactly happened, but so far, the point of the book seems to be how snobbish Cadence’s family is about their social standing and family background. I initially was a little turned off by the extremely short chapters, the repetitive sentence structures, and the length of the backstory expositional passages, but then I got to the point where I was reading it as if it was a novel in verse, and now the writing style is working better for me. I notice that the customer reviews on amazon allude to twists and turns and intrigue later in the book, so I may have a very different opinion of it once I get a little farther.

Non-Fiction

Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins

Eye to EyeDon’t let the picture book format fool you—this is a highly informative work on ocular anatomy that contains definitions and descriptions that even an adult might find instructive. But, even with its big words and small text, it’s extremely accessible to young readers because of the colorful and bright illustrations. For all its science words, Eye to Eye still reminded me of little-kid concept books about animals. I think that even a preschool-aged child might enjoy flipping through this book and even a teenager or adult could learn something from it, but its primary audience is kids in first to fourth grade.

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin

I considered not including this book on my list because it is extremely dry, but it’s also extremely informative and would be extremely useful for a reader who is studying John Brown, the Civil War, or black history. For instance, unlike most children’s books that describe slavery in America, it mentions the Arab slave trade, which led to European adoption of racial slavery, which was carried over to the New World long before the era of cotton gins and the Confederate battle flag. A Volcano Beneath the Snow reads like a seventh or eighth grade textbook, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it for pleasure reading unless the reader was a big non-fiction reader and already had a strong interest in the specific subject matter.

On My To-Read-ASAP List

Family RomanovThe Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, both because it’s been so well-received and because I’m interested in the subject, so when I noticed it in a bookstore while waiting for a train the other day, I couldn’t resist buying it. It was in hardcover, so it was super expensive. But I’m really looking forward to starting it, once I finish one more of the books I’m currently reading. I’m working on six at a time, which I feel is probably enough for now.

There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 7

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Da Vinci CodeA number of years back, I read something in the newspaper that has stuck with me ever since then. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when or exactly where I saw it, so I can’t properly cite it. I don’t even remember whether it was a review or an opinion piece or a column, but it was about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It began by quoting the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Although there’s nothing unrealistic or fantastical about the idea of a clock that doesn’t start over at twelve, it’s just jarring enough to alert the reader to the fact that the story isn’t set in the real world. George Orwell is introducing a fictional reality. It isn’t characterized by magic and mythical creatures, but they count hours slightly differently than we do, so we are aware from the outset that there is a disconnect between the book and the real world. As the book progresses and the reader gradually learns about the historical events that were made up for the book, the reader remains conscious that those facts are part of the story. The Da Vinci Code, the newspaper writer said, lacks this subtle acknowledgement that it’s not based in reality. And unfortunately, the result is that many people believe the alternative historical facts that were made up for the book. My teenage self found this point to very profound even though I hadn’t read either 1984 or The Da Vinci Code at that point. But I remembered that statement last winter when I did read 1984 and again this autumn when I did read The Da Vinci Code. And I still think that it’s a significant point.

OrwellIt seems to me that Orwell’s 1984 is actually considerably less fanciful than The Da Vinci Code. The historical facts that Orwell fabricated were, from his perspective, near future. The historical facts that Brown invented are distant past.  As I indicated in this blog post from last year, I think that Orwell’s imagined version of the 1980s was a fairly realistic possibility of the direction that the late twentieth century could have taken. When it comes to Dan Brown’s fabricated history, it doesn’t matter whether or not his facts are realistic because he wasn’t guessing about the future; he was writing about own version of historical events that have already happened.

I really enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code.  Both as a recreational reader and as someone with a degree in English, I thought it was interesting and well-written. The plot is exciting and engaging, the characters are believable and likable, and there are a number of interesting themes and motifs. An additional appealing factor is that it involves historical details from a variety of time periods, which gives it the tone of a time-travel story even though most of the novel takes place in a single night. It’s highly intellectual for a sensational bestseller, and it’s very fast-paced and eventful for a novel that is essentially about historical research. Not only is it a gripping page-turner, but it raises the kinds of intellectual questions that leave you thinking long after you finish the book. What is the relationship between a symbol and a symbolized idea? If a symbol needs to be decoded, does that make it more meaningful or less meaningful? When it comes to ancient artifacts, is it more important to preserve something or to bring public awareness to it? What is it about human nature that makes us believe that secrets are meant to be discovered and revealed, and is that an impulse that should be followed? From an academic perspective, is it more important to debunk mistaken beliefs or to allow the continuation of a historically rich religious tradition?

But this book has raised other issues that aren’t about the questions and experiences of the characters, but rather about the relationship between the author and the reader. Dan Brown’s goal was to create a fascinating story with religious themes, and in that, he succeeded. It seems to me that he also was deliberately expressing his distaste for religion in general and Christian beliefs in particular. He succeeded in that, too. In the process of writing a novel that has sensational appeal, raises the intellectual and academic questions that he wants to bring to readers’ minds, and expresses his negative views of Christian theology, he alters historical facts. This is something that fiction writers do all the time to make a point or to tell a good story. Historical fiction often tends to be wildly inaccurate because the writer is not only trying to bring history to life, but also to tell a story that is interesting and original. Since readers know that fiction is, by definition, made up by the author, it isn’t necessarily immoral for an author to alter historical facts in order to tell the story that he or she wants to tell. But does the author have a responsibility to make sure that the readers know which facts are made up? Is it immoral for the author to put fabricated details into the mouths of academically respected characters? Is it wrong for the author to write about altered versions of actual people and organizations?

booksIn general, I’d have to say that the answer to the above questions is no. An author who writes a fictional story shouldn’t have to be responsible for ensuring that readers don’t accidentally believe that the story is true. If it’s okay for Margaret Mitchell to tell us that there was a woman named Scarlett O’Hara who lived in Georgia during the Civil War, if it’s okay for people like Thomas Malory and T.H. White to tell us stories about a medieval king named Arthur, if it’s okay for the BBC to tell us that there’s a man from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time in a blue box, then it should be okay for Dan Brown to tell us that there was a man in first-century Judea named Jesus who was married to a woman named Mary Magdalene and that religious leaders have since then gone out of their way to keep this union a secret.

But there are a couple things that make the situation regarding The Da Vinci Code a little different. One is that Jesus wasn’t just any historical figure; he is the basis of a large religious tradition that Dan Brown is undermining and discrediting when he makes up stories about Jesus that he hopes readers will believe to some extent. I gather that Dan Brown himself is not a Christian and that he doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so from his own perspective, it’s no more heretical and immoral to fictionalize Jesus than it is to fictionalize any other historical person. But even if we are to take this issue from Dan Brown’s point of view and leave Jesus’ divinity out of the debate, it seems to me that it’s still awfully irreverent and insulting to write a story that knowingly and deliberately contradicts other people’s faith while presenting the fabricated details in a way that attempts to persuade readers of their legitimacy. I know that Dan Brown himself has said that The Da Vinci Code is just a story, but he makes all of his characters academic experts and cites imaginary sources that sound real.

That brings me to the other problem, which is that Dan Brown tries too hard to hide his imaginative hand in his version of Jesus. Sure, any intelligent and discerning reader knows not to believe everything that he or she reads in a novel, even if it involves a real person, but people are going to have a harder time distinguishing fabricated facts from actually true background information when both kinds of details come from the mouth of characters who are described as leading experts in their fields. It’s not unreasonable for readers to subconsciously assume that, when a fictional expert states a historical fact, that the author has done research and verified the truth of that fact. When Leigh Teabing, a fictional scholar in ancient documents concerning Jesus, claims that there are 80 extracanonical gospels and implies that they are consistent with each other, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that this is true, when in fact Dan Brown exaggerated the number to make his point seem sensible, and that the extracanonical gospels are not at all in unity with each other. When Robert Langdon, a fictional authority in the field of symbols, interprets almost everything as a symbol of the sacred feminine, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that it’s true that a surprisingly large amount of famous artwork and literature contains hidden allusions to Mary Magdalene and/or pagan goddesses and/or a vaguely theistic concept of femininity itself. When a prose passage that is evidently Robert Langdon’s train of thought says that the word “Jehovah” is a blend of the Hebrew words for the sacred feminine and for the Hebrew male God “YHWH”, it’s only natural that many readers will think that’s true and totally forget that “Jehovah” is a Latinized spelling of “YHWH”, not a combination of another name with “YHWH”. (That one struck me as being particularly absurd. The worship of YHWH did not involve the belief in the existence of a corresponding goddess or an abstract divinely female entity, and if there was such a female divine being, her name wouldn’t have begun with the letter J or a Hebrew equivalent of it, because there was no Hebrew equivalent of the letter J.)

Fabricating JesusIt would be an interesting project to go through the book and meticulously factcheck each piece of information that is presented as a nonfictional fact. It wouldn’t surprise me if some authors have actually done so, since I know that The Da Vinci Code has sparked a phenomenal amount of discussion. I do know of one book that dedicates a fair amount of time and space to explaining where Dan Brown got his ideas. (The book is Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans, and I would recommend it. Although it isn’t absolutely unbiased, it’s less biased than most for-the-general-public books on the topic. He isn’t deliberately making up sensational theories for the sake of making a name for himself, which is what some of the “modern scholars” who he mentions have done.) Interestingly enough, not all of Dan Brown’s made-up facts are actually original. It seems that he did do at least a little research on some of the most extreme ideas that historians have suggested about Jesus and the early church. Evans lists some of the fabricated facts that Dan Brown uses and points out the lack of credibility in those sources. In theory, as a fiction writer, Dan Brown has the prerogative to pick a few radical and bizarre theories and create a story in which they are true. But this makes his misinformation particularly insidious, because it gives him the ability to frame his imaginary facts in a scholarly context.

Admittedly, there’s a very fine line between making up facts to tell an interesting story and making up facts that fool readers, and it has more to do with the readers’ perception than the author’s intention. But I do think that Dan Brown went too far. I lost count of how many times while I was reading The Da Vinci Code that I suddenly realized that it was responsible for the spread of a blatantly untrue fact that I’ve heard people say time and time again. (For instance, it’s absolutely false that the gnostic gospels were favorable towards women and were hidden by the Roman Catholic church because the popes were sexist. The four gnostic gospels that I have read are far, far more sexist than anything in the Bible.) People don’t even need to have read The Da Vinci Code themselves to have heard and repeated these falsehoods. Then these things get passed around as fun facts or as ammunition against Christianity, and few people are going to feel the need to look them up and see if they’re accurate.

The problem here isn’t the fact that someone wrote a book that isn’t historically accurate. The problem is that our culture enjoys debunking Christianity so much that there are people who are willing to believe anything they read in a fictional book that backs up their arguments, even if they are otherwise intelligent people wouldn’t take that approach to any other topic. Although I am suspicious of Dan Brown’s motives in writing such a book, I certainly wouldn’t argue for censoring his work because of the factual liberties that he takes. But I do think that the general reader population ought to keep in mind that Dan Brown is not a theological expert or a historical expert, that his religious-themed writings are fictional, and that his version of Jesus is not the Jesus who actually existed and who is the foundation of Christianity.

Unedited Ramblings, Episode One

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I would like to propose the theory that there are four different types of ideas, which I shall refer to as the concrete real, the abstract real, the concrete unreal, and the abstract unreal.  The concrete real consists of material objects and specific events, whether these events be historical occasions or what I had for lunch last Friday. (It was pizza, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.) The abstract real is things such as mathematical principles, the laws of physics, and philosophical and theological truths. For the sake of this description of my classification, I will not discuss at length the question of whether truth is objective, but since that question is already implied by the use of the word “truth” in this context, I will acknowledge that I am assuming the existence of objective reality and objective truth. I don’t think that point is actually all that necessary to this system of classification, though, because it isn’t necessary to take into consideration whether something is objectively true or observed to be true. For example, ethical rules fall under this second category whether those rules are innate or socially constructed. Basically, this category that I call the abstract real is made up of things that exist, but not in a tangible or directly observable way. We can only use these ideas by representing them with words and numbers, which technically are arbitrarily designated signs and sounds with no inherent meaning of their own.

I felt like I needed a picture here, and I figured this was a good place for a Matrix reference.

I felt like I needed a picture here, and I figured this was a good place for a Matrix reference.

The third category, which I am calling the concrete unreal, refers to fiction or to any game or form of entertainment that involves pretending. It is the things that don’t actually exist, but can be imagined to exist because they follow the same rules of being as things that do exist. We can imagine that it would be possible for these things to be true in the objective reality in which real things exist. Even magic and science fiction fall into this category, despite the fact that they disagree with reality in some ways, because we’ve all experienced many situations that seemed to defy those rules of reality to a small extent. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to use the ideas of invisibility or magical mental powers or technology beyond the scope of our own. However, it’s much more difficult to imagine a world in which two plus two equals five (not because “two” or “five” have been redefined, but because numbers actually work in a different way) or where there are fifty dimensions in coordinate space instead of three, or where there is no such thing as time. These types of concepts are not only outside of the realm of reality as we know it; they can’t even be explained with the words and numbers that work just fine to explain things within reality. These types of ideas are what I am calling the abstract unreal.

It may be fairly obvious that I started writing this blog post in my head while doing the reading assignment for my class in postmodernism. In general, I disagree with postmodern ideas and even find them kind of disturbing, mainly because of the underlying principle that everything is subjective and there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T. The books that we’re using for this class stress that you can’t boil postmodernism down to a simple description, but they only say that because it is so anti-postmodern to think that you can classify ideas under a label. I disagree; I think that you can classify ideas under a label as long as everyone using the label agrees about what the label means. That’s the whole point of labels. If they don’t always work, it’s because people misuse those labels, either out of ignorance or out of a postmodern-inspired inclination to mess up the validity and reliability of description. I agree that shapes on a piece of paper or a computer screen have no inherent meaning, and that language only is capable of communicating because we have assigned certain meanings to certain sounds and shapes. But once those meanings have been assigned, I think that we’re supposed to stick to the rules in order to ensure that the rules continue to work.  Despite the oft-repeated statement made by a couple dolls my sister and I used to have, you can’t redefine words to suit your present needs.

So, on those counts, I disagree with postmodernism, but I think that there’s still much to be said for the distinction between that which is being signified and that which signifies. Just as a portrait of a person is not that person and a photograph of a mountain is not a real mountain, a word is not an idea, just something that represents an idea. To read or even to listen to someone speak is to decode a system of metaphors that represents ideas (whether they correspond to reality or not, and whether they are concrete or abstract) with arbitrary sounds. As weird as postmodernism is, it’s right about the fact that every medium of communication, whether by word or by image, only has meaning because we assign meaning to it.

BoFor example, my sisters who live at home sometimes email me pictures of the cat or post pictures of him on tumblr. When they do so, they’re sending me a two-dimensional visual digital image of him that technically has no more in common with him than does a picture of asparagus, for example, despite the fact that Bo himself has very little in common with asparagus. But when I see those pictures, they make me think of him and they remind me of what an awesome cat he is. That is not the way I would react to a picture of asparagus. Most likely, if any of my sisters were to email me a picture of asparagus, I would be completely baffled, because I have fewer connotations with asparagus than I do with the cat. (It is now extremely likely that I will get at least a couple asparagus emails from my sisters in the relatively near future, and if that does happen, I won’t be very baffled after all. I have just added a connotation to visual representations of asparagus by mentioning it in this context.)

Gone with the WindTo relate this back to my four categories of ideas, the cat and the asparagus belong to the concrete real. This computer in front of my face is concretely real, and so are the books stacked behind it. Directly in front of my face, I see my linear algebra textbook. If I was to pick that up and open it right now, I would see a bunch of numbers, equations, and algorithms for solving those equations. The things in that book are abstractly real. The mathematical theorems described in the book are true, but they can only be described and explained by words and mathematical notation printed on a page or written on the classroom blackboard or spoken by my professor or written in my notes. Behind me, there’s another bookshelf where I keep most of my non-school books. A lot of them are fiction. For example, I could pick up Gone with the Wind, open it up, and start reading about the Civil War. The book is concretely real, the Civil War was concretely real, but the life of Scarlett O’Hara isn’t real. It never happened, but it conceivably could have. Most of the historical events in the book really happened, and there really were people very much like the characters in the story. Just as the words on the page represent the story, the experiences of Scarlett O’Hara represent the experiences of people who really lived in Georgia in the 1860s. Thus, the story of Gone with the Wind is concretely unreal. That book is the obvious example because it has so many historically verifiable facts, but the same goes for fictional stories that are less solidly based in reality. Most of the books on that shelf are set in places that really exist, or have characters with believable and realistic personalities, or make some metaphorical statement about the real world. For most of those books, all of those things are true. And in none of them do the rules of space and time work significantly differently than they do in real life. (With the possible exception of my Douglas Adams books. And also the possible exception of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, because I still have absolutely no clue what that book is saying, even after having read it three times.) The line between what I call the concrete unreal and the abstract unreal is quite a bit fuzzier, but I still think there’s a distinction. To use the terminology from my postmodernism class, the concrete unreal can be described and expressed using the same signifiers as the concrete real. A drawing of a fictional character doesn’t necessarily look different from a drawing of a real person. But the abstract unreal doesn’t make sense when expressed with the signifiers that we use to talk about reality.

The question that it would make sense to ask here is why I think there’s any significance to making these distinctions. The short answer is that I love making distinctions; making distinctions is fun. Inventing a system of classifying things or ideas is a very entertaining hobby. The longer answer is that I think that these four categories I have just labeled correspond to different types of intelligence. The concrete real is scientific, the abstract real is mathematical and/or philosophical, the concrete unreal is literary, and the abstract unreal is artistic. An intelligent person is someone who has some grasp of all four types of ideas and who excels in at least one. A genius is someone who has a good grasp of all four types of ideas and who is able to express the ideas from one category in the terminology of another. That’s what’s so impressive about great theoretical physicists like Einstein; they build real concepts out of thought experiments that start as abstract unreal ideas.

Since this blog post has been slapdashly written and probably has not followed a logical and organized structure, I am not going to bother coming up with a good way to conclude it.

 

There’s this book I’m reading, episode 4

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1984I started reading 1984 by George Orwell a while ago, and I had intended all along to write a blog post about it. Now I’ve finished the book and am reading other things, but I decided to write about it now anyway. 1984 is considered a quintessential Cold War- inspired dystopian novel. That may sound oddly specific, but it really isn’t, because dystopian novels are particularly associated with the Cold War era. As I read the book, I could definitely see why it was such an influential book. My senior seminar paper last semester required me to have a working knowledge of the ideas and motifs inherent in dystopian literature, and 1984 exemplifies them all.

When it was published in 1949, the Cold War was a new development in world politics, World War II was a recent event, and there wasn’t the kind of technological optimism that characterized 1960s science fiction such as Star Trek. In fact, the novel portrays a world that the author describes as being more primitive than the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The only advanced technology shown in the book are the telescreens, which are basically webcams in the walls. That may have been beyond the scope of 1949 technology, but Orwell was being realistic in his assumption that it was technologically feasible in the near future.  This future society that Orwell imagines has degenerated because it has fallen prey to an enforced communism, which he evidently intends for readers to equate with Nazism and Russian socialism. (Not that the Nazis were communists; the parallel there is the military rule and brutality.)

I find Orwell’s predictions to be impressively accurate. Of course, the world had not degenerated into a communist dystopia by 1984, but I think it probably would have if, as Orwell imagines, the countries of the world had merged into just three nations. That idea is, in my opinion, the only non-feasible element of Orwell’s imagined future. I don’t think there’s any way that such a major change could take place in the space of just a couple decades, but if it did, and especially if such a thing had happened in the early years of the Cold War, things probably would have turned out the way they are in 1984.

The world described in the novel is characterized by inescapable government surveillance, a systematic dumbing down of culture in order to make everything politically correct, and a less-than-luxurious lifestyle enforced by government rationing and regulation. These are all things that many people would argue actually are happening. In many cases, there’s some validity to those arguments, although I personally find it silly that anyone could blame the government for their lack of financial prosperity when we live in a country where the average citizen is ridiculously rich by international standards. I mean, seriously, I don’t have money to spare and am very concerned about it, and my family is poor by the standards of most people who go to my college, but I’ve never had to worry about literally starving to death, which is something that really does happen in the real world. And I own so much clothing that I actually need furniture in my room to keep the stuff I’m not wearing at any given time. Compared to the lifestyles of truly impoverished people, that’s some extreme opulence. But that’s really beside the point. The point is that there’s some truth to the argument that 1984 is just an extreme version of the real world, and the extreme government system in the book is just an exaggeration of the way government inherently works anyway.

OrwellThat’s a pretty superficial reading of the book; Orwell makes it very clear that the novel is a critique of powerful governments and of the motives that lie behind politics. Besides, as my dystopian research from last semester indicated, dystopian literature is almost always a political statement. These kinds of stories complain about the government of the author’s time and place by portraying a future version of that time and place that show what the author imagines will happen if the political situation doesn’t improve. Whether the specific issues being addressed are about the environment, about social issues, about the degree of power the government has, or about war, it’s axiomatically true that a dystopian story will be a commentary on something specific.  You can call that a slippery slope fallacy or you can call it a clever literary device, but it’s definitely the way the genre works. It’s very unlikely that anyone would ever write a good book with the premise, “The world is a really great place now, but in the future, it’s going to be terrible.”

Aside from the dystopian predictions about government, another characteristically postmodern element of 1984, which I found to be an interestingly accurate prediction on Orwell’s part, is the idea that truth is relative. This relates to the political aspects of the government because it is the government who sets these truths. The main character, Winston Smith, works at a job that involves altering records in order to hide the fact that the government changes their mind about things. At one point, Winston and his coworkers have an especially big job because their country has started fighting against the country that was previously their ally, and everyone is required to think that the war has always been against the country that is the current enemy. All references to the war in every speech, piece of propaganda, or news story must therefore be altered. This fact control is so prevalent and so successful that even the people doing the alterations don’t see it as lying or covering up the truth. Everyone believes exactly what the government tells them to believe, no matter how directly it contradicts what they know to be true. Winston Smith is unusual in that he has memories that disagree with the official “truth” and that he believes the government to be capable of and responsible for falsehood.  This is considered to be thoughtcrime and insanity, which leads to my favorite quotation from the book: “Perhaps a lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.”

Another thing in particular that really struck me about this book was the concept of “newspeak”. (It took me a few chapters to realize that the phrase is new-speak, not news-speak) Newspeak is basically a simplified version of English. The language is systematically being made less and less expressive by decreasing the vocabulary. Each edition of the dictionary has fewer words than the previous, and this is generally regarded as being a good thing. Words with synonyms are considered to be superfluous and unnecessary. For example, words such as “great”, “excellent” and “fantastic” can be eliminated because they mean the same thing as “good”, and words such as “bad”, “terrible” and “horrible” can be replaced with “ungood”. The people in charge of editing the dictionary are well aware that they are cutting away at subtle shades of meaning when they make certain words obsolete, but they consider this to be a positive thing because of the resulting simplicity. Their ultimate goal is to cut the entire language down to a single word that has such a generic and widespread meaning that it can be used for absolutely everything. Of course, the government is in charge of all this. The result is that, by simplifying language and controlling people’s ability to communicate, the government is controlling people’s thoughts and preventing them from being intelligent, logical, and capable of understanding anything beyond their monotonous everyday work.

As an English major, I’m very fascinated by the power of language. In fact, “the power of language” is a phrase that comes up very frequently in just about every English class I’ve ever taken. If 1984 is ever studied in any English classes at my college, I’m sure that “the power of language” is one of the main points that the professors expect students to take away from this book. It’s an idea that appeals to English professors and English majors alike because, not only is it a fun motif to look for, but it explains why one would want to study English and literature anyway. Nobody would really deny that words are linked to ideas, but the point being made in books like 1984 is that words are ideas; that freedom and knowledge and capability come through the power of vocabulary. If we spoke a language that only had one word, we could only think one thought. Even though the newspeak of 1984 is a long ways away from its one-word goal, it’s still simplified enough that people’s lives and their minds are simplified and they can be controlled like livestock. But, by speaking a language with a large vocabulary and a variety of different options for ways to express any idea, we have much more control over our own world and our ability think logically and capably.

I don’t think this was the primary point of the book, and in fact I think it contradicts Orwell a little bit because it’s a bit too optimistic, but I definitely think that 1984 could be used to make this point. The fate of humanity doesn’t just rest in the actions of the government and the degree of power that it has. Thought control isn’t an inevitable result of a strong government, and people won’t necessarily fall for the deceit of their leaders just because those leaders are overwhelmingly powerful.   It’s not a small detail that one of the mottos of the government equates themselves with newspeak, and it’s not a coincidence that the book begins with Winston starting to keep a diary in oldspeak. The ability to articulate ideas (whether you say them out loud or write them or just think them in words) is the ability to think ideas and to do things; language is the most powerful tool in existence. In 1984, humanity is defeated because their tool of language is being taken away from them. In real life, we can avoid a dystopian future by hanging on to the tool of language.

How Horror Movies Could Be Better

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A few days ago, I made the stupid mistake of watching a zombie movie. In my defense, I didn’t do it because of a misguided expectation that I would really enjoy said movie or because I had any interest in observing images of gory dead people. I watched it out of an intellectual curiosity about what it is in zombie movies that appeals to popular culture. As I mentioned in a blog post that I wrote about a month ago, the fear of zombies is basically an extrapolation of the fear of loss of intelligence. I could imagine the possibility of a very interesting, intellectual, and well-scripted zombie movie that plays off of this fear rather than being a series of disturbing images. Unfortunately, the particular movie that I watched barely acknowledged this aspect of zombies and instead relied upon creepy background music, gory special effects, and the characters’ extreme emotions to make the movie scary. I didn’t find the movie to be thought-provoking in any way, just disturbing on a very superficial level.

One specific way that I can elaborate on this is to point out that there were several instances in which a zombie’s hand would suddenly smash through a window and startle both the main character and me. This seemed to be the director’s strategy for evoking fear in the viewer. The feeling of being startled is, in my opinion, the least cognitive and most superficial kind of fear. An equally effective but much more tasteful way of eliciting the same response from the audience would perhaps be a scene in which the camera slowly pans across a room that at first appears to be empty and silent, but then the viewer sees a humanoid figure, partially concealed or maybe translucent, just standing there silently and creepily. I would consider that to be a pretty scary scene.

Maybe I shouldn’t really be analyzing horror movie techniques in the first place, since I’m not a fan of the genre and actually have only seen a couple movies that could be classified as horror movies, none of which I have particularly enjoyed. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading ghost stories, and I used to write a lot of ghost stories, too. I frequently have nightmares which make very good material for scary short stories. I also discovered several years ago that writing scary stories makes me less likely to have disturbing dreams; it’s as if I use up the ideas before I have a chance to dream them. Anyway, the point is that I have figured out what makes a ghost story scary and memorable, and the key is that it has to be about more than death and disgusting images. It has to rely upon ideas rather than images to evoke fear.

There are certain ideas that people naturally find creepy. One of them is the idea of death, which is what every zombie or ghost story uses, but that’s so straight-forward and so basic that it doesn’t make for a good story in and of itself. Another is things that seem human, but aren’t, particularly if they are messed up in some way. A distorted reflection in a mirror, a doll with a crack across its face, a disembodied voice, a mysterious shadow that looks like a person’s face… Even if some of those things don’t seem scary without a creepy context, if you stick them in a ghost story, they’re very scary. The plot of good ghost stories frequently center around a certain inanimate object such as a mirror or a doll that works towards that effect.

Staircases are another creepy image, although that might be my personal opinion rather than a universal fact. I personally have a kind of phobia of staircases which probably comes from the fact that they often appear in my scary dreams, but I think there’s a specific reason for that. To my overly analytic and metaphoric mind, going up or down a staircase stands for changing something. You are going someplace different from where you already are, you can’t actually see where you’re going before you get there, and if something goes wrong in the transition, you fall down and get hurt. Stairs work well for ghost stories if you think of them as a metaphor for the difference between life and death. In fact, in fiction, the difference between life and death can be metaphorical for the fact that, in real life, things change and are disturbingly unpredictable.  I remember one time when I was trying to make metaphors from a song that involved death, and my family laughed at me and said that death is never a metaphor. I beg to differ rather emphatically; I think that in art and literature, death can be a metaphor for things that are a little less specific. Otherwise, why would anyone ever want to read a ghost story or watch a zombie movie? Horror movies would be better if they made use of these kinds of ideas and metaphors.