Monday, March 01, 2010

Let's Play Catch Up

For some reason, I went into a dry reading spell after the big winter storm. I used my time off during the storm to storm through my reading for the Jefferson Cup committee, and I guess I burned out on books. No matter what I picked up, I had trouble getting hooked on the story, much less finishing it.

Luckily, that seems to have aboded, and I am happily bouncing from book to book. Although I didn't do this on purpose, they fall into three categories: sad, funny, or historical fiction. Let's get the sad out of the way.

Ways to Live Forever

I avoided this book when it was published. Got tons of praise and great reviews, but I wasn't having it. The story of a terminally ill child and his journal was not something that I cared to read, thank you very much. This may sound strange to those who know that, when I was a child/teen, I frequently read books featuring characters dealing with serious illnesses (Lurlene McDaniel books and the like). The main characters in those books, however, didn't die. Secondary characters died, such as Sandy in Six Months to Live, but the main character never died.

I'm still working my way through the juvenile fiction collection in reverse alphabetical order (choosing one title per shelf). I nearly chose another book, but since I had heard so many positive reviews from well-read and knowledgeable people in the children's literature field, I decided to finally read it.

Eleven year old Sam is dying from leukemia. He's been in and out of chemo treatment and hospitals for years, but this time, there's no more fighting. The doctors have given him one year. Sam, who is educated at home by a tutor, starts a journal in which he lists the things he wants to do in his last year. Run up a down escalator. Kiss a girl. He also lists questions about what it's like to die, where people go when they die, why does God allow kids to die, and so on. He lists facts about himself. His favorite things.

Sally Nichols (in her debut novel) deserves every praise that she's received for her debut novel. It's very easy to create a manipulative weeper, but there's no manipulation here. There's a bit of humor sprinkled throughout the book, much of it the dark humor that is not unusual among people facing terminal illness (Sam's friend in particular).

However, it is breathtakingly and nearly unbearably sad. I read it in one sitting last night; not just because it was that well written, but because I really just wanted to get through it. The final journal entry is quietly understated, but absolutely devastating. It is an unforgettable read, but you really need to know what you're getting into when you pick it up.

Second up in the sad parade is A Day No Pigs Would Die. Holy smokes, I did not know what I was getting into when I started this one (I knew what would happen in Ways to Live Forever). Yes, this was my first time reading this. Luckily, Peck pulls no punches in the first chapter, so you're at least warned.

To be fair, Vermont farm life in the (near) mid 19th century (Peck doesn't give a specific date, but since the family are Shakers, that's what I'm assuming)was not pretty. You have to have grown up a farm boy, as Peck did, to know that it's not all hayrides and horsies. Life (and the creation of life, or attempt, in a *rather* memorable scene in which Robert's pet pig is bred) and death (in a *rather* memorable scene in which a pig is slaughtered) is just part of the everyday struggle that is life. And being Shakers, anything other than hard work is frivolity.

It's a great read. It's a fascinating read. It's a very graphic (but not gratuitous-farm kids, especially in those days, are not sheltered from the realities of life)read, so I wouldn't recommend reading it when you're eating. Or about to go to bed. The ending is a downer. But it's a great father-son story. It's not a sweet farm story; it's a hard hitting read. However, since I may be one of the last people to have read it (at least in the children's librarian and literature world), most people probably know this.

Knowing very, very little about the Shakers, I did a little research and found this. Ot explains some questions I had about the depiction of Shaker life in Peck's novel (particularly when I couldn't find out anything about the "Book of Shaker"-turns out, it doesn't exist).

Forget your troubles c'mon, get happy! I'll stop being such a Debbie Downer and talk about funny books in my next post.

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