Review: Listening for Madeleine

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Madeleine L’Engle, beloved author of A Wrinkle In Time (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1962).

The Good: How to write a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, especially when so many people think they know her from her memoirs and what is believed to be autobiographical elements of her fiction? Making it that much more complicated is the controversial 2004 The New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zarin, The Storyteller.

I’ll be honest: I’m a Madeleine L’Engle fan. I’ve read almost all her books — her fiction for all ages, except for a couple earlier hard to find books; her memoirs; but not the overly religious works.

A Wrinkle in Time was the first book of L’Engle’s I read; next was Meet the Austins. I tracked down books, waited for new ones. Enjoyed “discovering” books and chatting about them with friends. I read the Crosswick Journals and believed in the life she presented. So when I read that those stories were, well, not accurate, that, at best, L’Engle omitted some things or painted other things in the best possible light, I felt — relieved. And liked her all the more for it. Knowing that the idealistic version of things was just that, not real, was reassuring in that there was nothing wrong with me or mine for not living in such a golden place. And more than that, L’Engle was as human as the rest of us, doing what she could with what she had, making mistakes and moving forward.

So, that’s the mindset I had going into Listening for Madeleine: a fan who wanted to know more about an author I admire and wasn’t expecting perfection. I read this as a book for similar readers: oh, the works we like may be different, but this is for people who know L’Engle through the books they’ve read.

Listening for Madeleine begins with a short biographical introduction, to give the reader a background for the essays to come. Instead of putting together a biography, Marcus puts together a history of L’Engle from a series of essays by people who knew L’Engle at different times in her life. The essays are divided into sections reflecting L’Engle’s life: Madeleine in the Making; Writer; Matriarch; Mentor; Friend; and Icon. Some are by people who were very close; others reflect fleeting meetings. I enjoyed reading about the essays; seeing when things matched from person to person, when they didn’t (because perspective influences memory and experience).

Another part of Listening for Madeleine I found fascinating was the look at publishing. I recognized some of the essay writers. And some of the details — like the signings at conferences — were so familiar!

Just as the essays sometimes said as much about the teller as L’Engle, I’m sure my takeaways tell something about me. I enjoyed most those that said L’Engle made her writing a priority and talked about how she handled that role. I was also fascinated with the “facts” versus “fiction”, and the reactions to the Zarin article. Given L’Engle’s age, I understand the desire to ignore, hide, or pretend that certain things weren’t true (specifically, her son’s alcoholism) and the belief that some that revealing this was someone a betrayal or hurt or just plain wrong. I understand because I’ve seen that same attitude in older members of my family. And, as with family members, I understand and disagree. I don’t think pretending some things don’t exist help anyone. And even as I write this, here is part of the complexity of what is going on, in that I don’t “know” anything about L’Engle and the things she preferred not to share publicly beyond my interpretation of what is said in these essays.

Other reviews: io9; Bookforum; The New Republic.


Review: Moonbird

Moonbird: A Year On the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Sibert Honor.

It’s About: B95 is a rufa red knot, first tagged in Argentina in 1995. Since then, B95 has been seen again and again, not just in Argentina, but along the varied places in the migratory cycle of a rufa red knot: Argentina, the Delaware Bay, Canada. Moonbird (a nickname for B95) uses the life and journey of one small bird to show the intricate life of this small shorebird, as well as bigger lessons about ecology, interdependence and extinction.

The Good: As you may remember from my review of Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, I am not an animal person. For readers who are animal people, Moonbird is an easy fit and recommendation. Nature lovers will love it. It also shows, from the many scientists and volunteers who appear in the book, the various career and vocational paths for those who love animals. I already know who I’ll be recommending this book to.

The good thing about being a non-animal lover reading a book like this is I don’t get swept away by the topic. See, in nonfiction, I have to be vigilant and aware to make sure that my liking a topic or subject matter doesn’t influence what I think about the actual book. What is it about Moonbird that made it a finalists for the YALSA Award of Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, an award to “recognize the best in the field of nonfiction books (at this time, only books will be considered for the award) materials for young adults,” and it must include “excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults.”

Most of Moonbird is about the year-long migratory cycle that the rufa red knots make. Woven in is deeper information, from the process of banding birds (how the birds are captured, the color-coding different countries have used since 2003) to the relatively recent discovery that the Delaware Bay is one of the stops on that path. This is a part of New Jersey culture I didn’t know about, not at all! I love how Moonbird doesn’t just present facts and figures; it explains how that knowledge was gained. It’s not just the findings of scientists, it’s also the work of scientists, which is always ongoing.

The number of rufa red knots have dropped since B95 was first seen. Part of that has to do with their journey. The book starts with Argentina, where B95 was first tagged, and the food sources that the shorebirds pursue, moving on in a set pattern to best take advantage of the ideal food sources and temperature. If something happens to one part of that intricate chain, it affects all, which is why the threat of extinction now exists for a bird that was plentiful just a couple of decades ago. When I went looking for more information, I found A Red-Knot Celebrity Is Back in Town from The New York Times, dated this past May! B95 survives.

For how much longer, though? B95 is the perfect bird to use to illustrate the dangers of extinction, the intricacy of the earth’s resources and how different organisms and animals rely on each other and are interdependent.

I can easily see why Moonbird is a finalist. For “readability,” it combines narrative and information seamlessly. The research is explained in the Appendix and Source Notes, as well as the author’s own knowledge and experiences with rufa red knots. While this is about a shorebird, I also see it as inspiration — not just “what you can do” in terms of the rufa red knot as Moonbird spells out in the Appendix, but in what a teenager who loves science can do in terms of a career. Isn’t “best” about that type of inspiration? And while I personally am more a history nonfiction reader, I love that there are such terrific science nonfiction books for readers!

Other reviews: Bookends, a Booklist blog (this includes Common Core connections); SLJ Heavy Medal; LibrariYan.

Review: Death Sentence

Death Sentence. Escape From Furnace 3, by Alexander Gordon Smith. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to Lockdown and Solitary.

The Plot: The third book of the teenage prison break series, Escape From Furnace, finds Alex and his friends trapped in the underground prison, Furnace Penitentiary. Alex’s second attempt at escape brought him tantalizing close to the outside. His punishment? Alex is turned over to the Infirmary, to become surgically remade into one of the monstrous creatures that police the hallways of Furnace.

At least in Lockdown  and Solitary , Alex had his friends. At least, then, he had hope. At least, then, he had his soul. Now, Alex’s own body and mind will betray him. There are some things worse than death.

The Good: As I explained in my recent review of Solitary, the Escape From Furnace series is best read in order. As a quick recap (and spoilers for the previous two books), in Lockdown, petty criminal Alex was falsely convicted of murder and sent to the Furnace Penitentiary. He attempts to escape, but is caught. Alex is punished in Solitary; but the isolation of the “hole” isn’t enough to break him. Death Sentence begins immediately after Alex’s second failed attempt at escape. Alex thought he knew all the secrets Furnace was hiding. He’s about to find out how much worse it is.

Death Sentence delivers what Furnace fans want: breathless action, deep friendships, and a likable, flawed main character. These books are all quick reads, and are relatively short at under 300 pages each. Or maybe they just seemed like quick reads, because the Escape from Furnace books are the very definition of page-turner. A lot happens, one thing after another, BAM BAM BAM. I’m amazed at how inventive Smith is with finding new and hopeless situations to put Alex in, and then having Alex and his friends brainstorm ways to pull off the impossible.

Alex and his friends manage to pull off some pretty spectacular things, but it’s always within the realm of possibility. As Alex discovers, the gigantic “blacksuits”, gas-masked “wheezers” and brutal, mindless “dogs” and “rats” all used to be teenage prisoners who have been transformed. Part of that transformation includes forgetting who you are, who you were, and becoming cruel, mean, and brutal. Alex’s punishment for two escape attempts? He’s going to be made into one of these monster. It’s a fascinating process to see the combination of science and brainwashing that goes into the transformation, and to see how Alex tries to “remember his name” and not become what he’s being made into.

One reason I adore these books? Alex’s fight is not superman. In Lockdown, he encounters a blacksuit who was a friend who tells him: remember your name. Alex’s accomplishments (and there are many) are impressive but not unbelievable. He isn’t “superhuman”, even after, well, he is made into a superhuman. His friends aren’t just sidekicks with the quick quip, or reminders of his humanity and past. They are integral; they are necessary; they have talents and skills Alex doesn’t have.

If you’ve been wondering, Furnace Penitentiary seems like an awful lot of work and expense for a bunch of juvenile delinquents, Alex finds out more about Alfred Furnace, the man behind both the prison and the experiments. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say one word: there are Nazis. I KNOW.

As I’ve cautioned before: be careful with your Internet searching and this series. All five books have been published in the UK already and the UK website contains spoilers.

Review: Solitary

Solitary: Escape From Furnace 2 by Alexander Gordon Smith. Sequel to Lockdown. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2010.

The Plot: At the end of Lockdown, Alex and his friends escaped the underground prison, Furnace, by blowing up a wall and throwing themselves into an underground river.

Alex knew it wouldn’t be easy to escape Furnace. What he didn’t realize was how many dark, bloody secrets Furnace hid, it its underground cells and laboratories. He didn’t realize there could be something worse than recapture.

The Good: Just like Lockdown, the first book in this five-book series, the action is nonstop and breathless. Yes, I think you need to read these books in order. In all honesty, I could easily see these five volumes being printed up in one volume, it’s that type of story. For those who haven’t read Lockdown, Smith provides enough detail to quickly get the reader caught up on what is going on: Furnace is a horrible prison, Alex and his friends have escaped, prisoners are the subjects of terrible surgeries and experiments that turn them into monstrous creatures, “rats,” “dogs, “wheezers,” “blacksuits,” whose only purpose is to cruelly control the prison population. Got it? Good. Actually, not very good for those who have to live it.

Solitary is full of action. As the title implies, Alex is ultimately caught and thrown into the “hole,” solitary confinement. Smith can even make solitary confinement action packed. Alex is not the sort of person to sit quietly and contemplate his lot in life. He’s someone who acts rather than reflects. Even when he is forced to, well, think about what he’s done and why he ended up in a place like Furnace, those dreams and memories aren’t quiet and low-key.

Oh, Alex. As you may remember, Alex was a criminal, just not a murderer. He was framed for the crime that brought him to Furnace. One thing that is admirable about him is that he does not deny his actions and his past: “I’m not a good person. . . . I stole from the people I loved, and took the things that meant the most to them.” Even as Alex owns his past and his actions, there is sympathy for him. Furnace is a hell that no one deserves. Here in this immoral place, Alex faces hard moral choices and makes the “right” decisions, or, rather, the least “wrong” one. He’s not perfect, but as his actions show, he isn’t as bad as he thinks.

Given the harsh subject of the book (teens are imprisoned and turned into monsters), it’s a bit odd for me to say this is a fun series but it is. First, it’s never overly gory; there is just enough detail shared to know what’s going on, to know what is being done to the boys, to understand their hardships, without it being over the top. Second, whatever the boys did to get sent to Furnace, what’s being done to them is so much worse that they are  heroes you can cheer. The tight bonds they form with each other add to it; as I mentioned in my review of the first book, Alex isn’t afraid of his emotions. He isn’t afraid to be afraid; he isn’t afraid to cry. He just doesn’t let those emotions get in the way of his goal: Escape From Furnace.

All five volumes are already available in the UK. If you do not like spoilers, do not look this series up on the Internet! Do not even look at the titles for the next volumes