Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Because of Winn-Dixie

Because of Winn-Dixie – Kate DeCamillo

India Opal, generally referred to as Opal, is new in town. She has just moved to a small town in Florida because her father, the preacher, was assigned to a new congregation. Without her familiar surroundings, she feels more vulnerable and scared than ever, longing for the mother who left when she was young. Lucky for Opal, she quickly finds a friend in a stray dog when she runs down to the Winn-Dixie grocery store one day. Naming him after the place she found him, Opal and Winn-Dixie become inseparable. They go to church together, share the same bed, and walk all over town meeting new people and even making some friends. Through her partnership with Winn-Dixie, Opal learns how to move on and build new relationships as life continually pushes forward.

“Because of Winn-Dixie” is an adorable story about finding the courage to push outside your comfort zone and reach out to others. It covers everything from loss and death to alcoholism, but does so with a tone of childhood teasing, so although the issues are serious, they are portrayed with a touch of simplicity that allows for forgiveness and growth. Opal’s innocent curiosity about life also emphasizes that skill children have for asking difficult questions with unassuming interest, which tends to put a little perspective on how big (or, more likely, small) the issue really is. Her simple trust and optimistic determination about building relationships, and life in general, make her an excellent protagonist for a children’s novel.

I love children’s books because of the perspective they offer on life. There always seems to be more of an element of fun and play while also tackling some of the stickier issues of life. Children’s novels can’t be too serious because of their intended audience, and I think we always need that little reminder. This is a very simple book, probably readable in one sitting if you have enough time, but easy enough to pick up and put down.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Book of Awesome

The Book of Awesome - Neil Pasricha

Sometimes you're having a bad day, then one little thing happens to turn it all around. Or sometimes you're having a great day, and one little thing happens to make it that much better. Or it’s just an all-around amazing day when everything is going right. Whatever the case may be, those little things are worth taking note of. In fact, why not make a whole list out of them? Whether you’re smacking electronics to make them work, high-fiving babies, or enjoying the cool side of your pillow, these little things are what make life AWESOME!

“The Book of Awesome” is just a list of awesome things. Some items are accompanied by lengthy descriptions explaining the exact circumstances in which said awesome event is so awesome, while others are just quick entries emphasizing that the awesome event is awesome exactly the way it is. Pasricha writes in a conversational style that sounds exactly how you would speak if you were defending deep-held beliefs about what makes life so great. The easy-going writing style underscores the value of the materials by making it accessible. “The Book of Awesome” is fun, easy to read, and plain old awesome. Since it is written in list format, it doesn’t lend itself to extended reading, but it’s great to pick up and just read a few items on the list. It reminds you of all the little things that deserve your attention because they are so great in such a simple way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Civil Action

A Civil Action – Jonathan Harr

The small town of Woburn seems like an ideal place to raise a family in the 60s and 70s, as many people do. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, as one family learns when their young son dies of leukemia. A small tragedy that could pass unnoticed until another child dies of leukemia. And another, and another, until people begin to speculate about the possibility of a cancer cluster. The likely suspect is the drinking water, which smells foul and tastes worse. The town suspects two production plants of polluting the water source with chemicals and toxic waste. However, the case seems just as toxic and untouchable as the water, until it falls into the hands of Schlichtman, who pursues the case beyond the point of obsession. After pouring years of life and millions of dollars into research, the case finally comes to trial. Although the case seems clear cut, Schlichtman runs into problems in the courtroom as he comes up against hostile witnesses, alternative theories of groundwater movement, and a stubborn judge. As the case drags on, it raises more questions about both the purpose and the process of the justice system. Does it protect the victims, and can it indeed be called a justice system?

“A Civil Action” is a very detailed retelling of the trial process. Based on the true story of a court case in the 80s, it tells the real story of all the effort, strain, and worry that goes into high profile cases. The author doesn’t skip any detail, documenting superstitious wardrobe choices, eating habits, and a whole array of dysfunctional behaviors. This could potentially be a highly compelling legal story, but the author doesn’t seem to be telling a story. He is recounting a trial, and it comes off that way. His descriptions are accurate and they create somewhat dramatic scenes, but overall, he lacks the energy and enthusiasm that should accompany a story. The narration is fine, but it doesn’t flow. The details are precise, but they’re not vivid. The story plods along rhythmically rather than catching the reader in a swirl of interest. Overall, it’s OK.

I wasn’t too thrilled with this book. Actually, I was quite intrigued as I read the summary of it, but once I started reading, I quickly changed my assessment. It was still interesting and I enjoyed learning more about the legal process. I had no idea that there was more to a trial than just the trial – there is also discovery, taking depositions, all kinds of research, briefing, and motions. But unless you are really interested in those things – perhaps if you are a lawyer – it doesn’t make for an easy read. It’s no John Grisham, which I know isn’t a fair comparison, but if you’re looking for an interesting legal read, you’re probably better off sticking with a reputable author with a history of compelling books.