Friday, June 16, 2006

Fourth Book: Journey Between World by Sylvia Louise Engdahl

228 pages, read from Friday 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday, 3:15 p.m. to 4:40, 3 hours

(My personal rules for the book challenge don't allow rereading, but I actually forgot that I had already read this; it was only once, almost 30 years ago.)

First off, let me say this book has a terrific cover. In the publicity for its reissue, Engdahl has emphasized that it's a romance, presumably not wanting people to expect something similar to her serious YA science fiction novels, and the Manga-looking drawing of a girl in stylish space gear, rather dejectedly holding a bouquet of roses, couldn't say "science-fiction chick-lit" any better.

Journey Between Worlds is the story of Melinda, who having graduated high school expects to marry her boyfriend, settle down in her home town, and never budge again. Her plans take a detour when her father gives her a ticket to Mars as a graduation present--and when her boyfriend's obnoxious reaction to the idea convinces her to use it. Melinda doesn't expect much from the primitive, colonial world of Mars; she can't even understand why anyone would live there by choice. Even when she begins to have feelings for Alex, a returning "Martian" she meets aboard ship, she can't imagine giving up life on Earth to be with him... can she?

Originally published in 1970, this story remains Engdahl's slightest work. In an afterward, she mentions making small changes for the 2006 edition, mainly to update views about women, marriage and careers. Nonetheless, the first-person narrative retains a squeaky-clean 1960's feel, like Beany Malone or Up a Road Slowly in space.

But there's also an older tradition being followed here, that of books like Christy or Mrs. Mike, about a young woman leaving behind the comforts of "civilization" to become a pioneer. The heart of Journey Between Worlds is the belief that exploration is necessary to the human spirit, as well as to mankind's ultimate survival. Engdahl wrote about this same theme in her other YA books, in ways I personally find more compelling... but there's nothing wrong with also delivering the idea with a bouquet or roses. (12 & up)

Book Three: Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones

375 pages, read from 4:40 p.m. to 11 pm, with many interruptions
(maybe 3 hours of reading total?)

Twelve year old Conrad has been told by his uncle that he carries bad karma, and that the only way to escape it is to find an evil person he was meant to kill in a previous life and do it now. His fate supposedly awaits him at Stallery, the stately home of Count Robert. Con manages to get hired--along with Christopher, a slightly older boy who clearly also has an ulterior motive for wanting to be at Stallery. (Readers of previous Chrestomanci books will immediately recognize Christopher Chant.) As Con and Christopher become friends, and begin to explore the magical oddities raging around them, Con finds himself caught up in far more serious matters than that of his own karma.

As with all of Jones' books, I couldn't make head or tails of this one on the first reading. Plots, magic, ghosts, manipulation, romance, and the proper procedures for footmen all jumble together in an endlessly complicated, yet pleasing mix. I'm sure it'll all make sense at some point. And I enjoyed seeing some of what occurred between The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life.

this reading challenge interrupted for an important announcement!

My son is reading.

I mean, really reading.

I mean, looking at a page of text he has NEVER SEEN BEFORE and READING IT.

My work here is done.

most fascinating search of the day

"children's books that didn't make it"

What on earth do you suppose they were looking for? I'm just stymied.

(Still reading... currently in the Middle of Conrad's Fate. But I was feeling a bit punchy.)

Second Book: Party Princess by Meg Cabot

288 pages, read from 2:20 to 4:20

(I needed a change of pace from the Warsaw Ghetto. No kidding.)

The seventh volume of the Princess Diaries is pretty much the story as before: Mia, high school student/Princess of Genovia, has an immense, book-long freak-out over nothing. If you can deal with how clueless Mia is, how obnoxious her best friend Lilly is, and how reptetitious the series as a whole is, it's pretty funny. I might say if you're read one, you've read them all - except that in none of the other diaries will you find Mia and her friends performing in Braid! a musical version of the life of Mia's ancestor, who strangled an evil prince with her hair. For that reason alone, if you're only going to read one of the Princess Diary books, it should be this one.

First book: Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

208 pages, read from 11:45 to 1:35.

Like the tree that grows in Brooklyn, milkweed is a tenacious plant, the only hint of green managing to survive in the desert of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator of this story is also tenacious, even as he is buffeted by forces beyond his control, like a milkweed pod blown about by the wind. His first memory is of running; the only name he knows for himself is Stopthief. When he's adopted by another homeless orphan named Uri, his first name and background are bestowed up him: Misha Pilsudski, a Gypsy boy with seven brothers and five sisters.

For a time, Misha lives a comfortable underground life, thieving with Uri and a group of other boys, always sharing some of what he steals with the local orphanage. Then he befriends a girl named Janina Milgrom, a girl who lives in a nice home and wears beautiful shiny shoes... for a while. Janina and her family are marched to the Ghetto shortly before Misha himself is forced there--Uri, with red hair and a genuis for conformity, manages to escape--and when Misha, a skilled smuggler, supports them with stolen food he becomes part of their family and gains another identity: a Jewish boy named Misha Milgrom.

Even when Uri reappears with a message--"Do not be here when the trains come... Run. Don't stop running"; even when Janina's father begs them both to run away from the Ghetto--Misha clings to his new family and the life they know. But he can't control the forces that will once again blow them like the wind.

Even aside from the ugliness it depicts, Milkweed is a challenging story. Although occasionally the narrator steps outside of the events to comment as an adult, most of it is told in the voice of the uncomprehending, gullible boy he was, who is reliving pieces of story barely understood, sometimes barely understandable. But it well repays the reader who commits to it, and comes away with a new sense of what it means to live through such times. I was left in tears by the book's end, in which the adult Misha embraces the final pieces of his identity.

Ready, Set, READ!

Find the official rules for the challenge here.

My official starting time: Friday, 11:45 am

My official starting book: Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli