Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meghan Gurdon, I Agree With You!

I'm a little late joining in the fray relating to Meghan Cox Gurdon's June 4 article about the state of YA fiction, "Darkness Too Visible," but with the author releasing a follow-up article today, I felt like offering my take on it (for the record, I am not a parent or in the YA demographic, I'm just speaking from my own experience as someone who cares about what the kids in my life are reading.) The original article, where Gurdin argued that "teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is", caused an uproar and spawned the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter, where opponents have written things like "Thank you to my mother 4 respecting me enough as a kid to leave me alone w books & choose 4 myself" and "I find some YA books 2 dark&depressing 2 read myself.My 13-yr-old loves them.Parents don't always know what's good for their kids."

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a stable, loving family, where reading was encouraged and I didn't have to grow up too fast. I understand that for many teenagers, this is unfortunately not the case, and some may find solace in dark YA literature that mimics their problems. I'm certainly not advocating censoring books with darker themes, or making the generalization that all YA books dealing with tough topics like bullying or rape are bad. I just disagree with the tone that many of these books take, and I'm not sure that it really helps struggling teens to read books where the protagonists are going through cruel and unnatural experiences with sex, alcohol and drugs. As Gurdin says,

"For families, the calculus is less crude than some notion of fictional inputs determining factual outputs; of monkey read, monkey do. It has more to do with a child's happiness and tenderness of heart, with what furnishes the young mind. If there is no frigate like a book, as Emily Dickinson wrote, it's hardly surprising that parents might prefer their teenagers to sail somewhere other than to the lands of rape, substance abuse and mutilation."

The idea of protecting a child's "tenderness of heart" really struck me. When I think of the books that I read as a kid-- the Saddle Club series, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, The Yearling-- I think of learning about friendship, bravery, ingenuity and working to overcome obstacles. That doesn't mean that these books were filled with characters free of trouble or heartache. Harry Potter certainly endured a great deal of sadness and loss, and even the saccharine Nancy Drew lost her mother when she was a baby. But these stories are uplifting and provide the comforting sense that even when things seem darkest, good triumphs and all is right in the world.

The bottom line is that this doesn't seem to be a trend that is going away any time soon. I just glanced over Publisher's Weekly's reviews of upcoming children's novels, and they include books featuring teen pregnancy, a teenage drug addict with no parents, a foster child in a group home, "grisly murders" and a teen "scarred and silent years after a childhood disappearance." That means it is up to parents to take responsibility for what their children read, and determine whether something will enrich their child's understanding of life, with all its good and bad aspects, or whether it only subvert it.

What do you think?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser

Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. They stole a dozen masterpieces, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. But after thousands of leads—and a $5 million reward—none of the paintings have been recovered. 

After the death of famed art detective Harold Smith, reporter Ulrich Boser decided to take up the case. Exploring Smith's unfinished leads, Boser travels deep into the art underworld and comes across a remarkable cast of characters, including a brilliant rock 'n' roll thief, a gangster who professes his innocence in rhyming verse, and the enigmatic late Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner herself (summary from Goodreads).

One of my reading resolutions for 2011 was to read more non-fiction, a genre I normally don't give as much attention to since I find a lot of the books very dry. However, I love a good mystery (especially one involving art theft- it must be due to my early watching of How to Steal A Million with Audrey Hepburn) and it's amazing that after 21 years this case is still unsolved. And with last week's capture of mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, who was suspected of being involved in the theft, this case has been back in the headlines recently. It's always cool when real life intersects with what you're reading at the moment!
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt
The Gardner Heist introduces a wide range of potential suspects and investigators, from prolific thief Myles Conner and his lawyer Marty Leppo to the Cockney nicknamed "Turbo" who aids in the investigation. Though I occasionally lost track of who was who (especially the law enforcement officers) I enjoyed the way the book was organized, with chapters focusing on certain people and their role in the case and then tying them back into the bigger picture of the theft. It heightened the suspense and helped keep the story moving.

Boser occasionally adopts a grandiose tone with regards to the theft and the importance of the art, and his descriptions sometimes verge on the overly dramatic (one character eats ribs "gnawing each bone as clean as a sun-bleached skeleton"). However, I wasn't at all familiar with the case or the missing paintings before I read The Gardner Heist, but by the end I found myself feeling the loss of the artwork and wishing I could see The Storm on the Sea of Galilee or Vermeer's The Concert in person. 

Chez Tortoni, Manet
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. The Gardner Heist is a readable and interesting account of the theft and the following investigation that offer several compelling theories on who might have taken the priceless paintings. Boser still maintains a website where people can submit tips and find out more information about the case: http://theopencase.com/gardner.

Details: published by HarperCollins, 2009
Source: library copy

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I'm Back/Free Fiction for Kindle

Whew! It has been a while since my last post...thanks to those of y'all who have stuck with me. I plan on posting some reviews later this week, but until then here are some of the great books currently available for free through Amazon (if you don't have a Kindle you can download free software to read the ebooks on your computer).

Surrender the Heart by MaryLu Tyndall
Publisher: Barbour 

I really enjoyed this book set in Baltimore during the War of 1812 (check out my review here) and am looking forward to the third book in the series, Surrender the Dawn, coming out in August.

This Fine Life by Eva Marie Everson
Publisher: Revell

I've heard great things about this novel set in the 1960s, so I'm looking forward to reading it.

Gods and Kings (Book 1 of The Chronicles of the Kings series) by Lynn Austin
Publisher: Bethany House

Ditto for this. My mom told me about Gods and Kings ages ago so I'm looking forward to starting the series.


The Swan House (Book 1 in The Swan House Series) by Elizabeth Musser
Publisher: Bethany House

This coming-of-age novel set in 1950s Atlanta sounds really interesting.


I, Spy? (Book 1 in the Sophie Green Mysteries) by Kate Johnson
Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Limited

This looks like a fun mystery about a British girl recruited to join a secretive government agency.

All of these books were free as of Wednesday morning.