Book bits

The Mysterious Benedict Society, By Trenton Lee Stewart

Nothing against books for grown-ups, but when I really want to remember why I am a bookworm, I head for the children's section. There are hundreds of reasons shelved there, ranging from Louisa May Alcott to Zilpha Keatley Snyder, but let me just give you my newest: Trenton Lee Stewart and his fabulous new The Mysterious Benedict Society.

To begin with, Stewart baits his tale with a hook sturdy enough to land a humpback whale, let alone a bored 10-year-old who's waiting impatiently for July 21 and the final Harry Potter. A lonely orphan opens the newspaper one morning to read: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" (Sign me up! Oh, wait.)

Reynie Muldoon is one of dozens of children who show up to take a series of tests – some mental, some ethical. (Stewart doesn't cheat, either, letting readers play right along with his characters.) But Reynie, a natural leader with a gift for logic and puzzles, is one of only four who pass. He and the others are taken to a drafty three-story house to meet Mr. Benedict, a narcoleptic genius who needs the children's bravery and unusual abilities to save mankind from mental slavery.

Runaway George "Sticky" Washington has an eidetic memory, Kate Weatherall is a fearless preteen with incredible physical dexterity, and Constance Contraire is a stubborn fireplug of a girl who ... well, the others aren't quite sure why she's there.

The four go undercover as students at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (Only rule: There are no rules) to ferret out and foil the sinister plan. Stewart's first book for children reminded me at different times of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, George Orwell, and Elizabeth Enright, without ever feeling derivative or stale. Delightful Edward Gorey-esque drawings by Carson Ellis complete the package.

While the book weighs in at a hefty 500 pages, overall, the novel stays miraculously light on its feet. (The middle could perhaps have been whittled down a mite, I'm never in favor of plot twists involving twins, and there's a reveal at the end regarding Constance that I'm not sure stands up to close scrutiny.)

But these are small quibbles in a novel that simultaneously manages to be fast paced enough to please children and old-fashioned enough to delight their parents.

– Yvonne Zipp

By a Monitor writer

She needs no introduction to longtime Monitor readers. Since 2000 Helena Cobban has been writing a column on the Monitor's Op-Ed page, covering topics such as human rights and international justice. But long before the column, in the 1970s and '80s, Cobban worked as a journalist in the Middle East and spent five years as a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for both the Monitor and the Sunday Times of London.

This fall, Cobban's sixth book, Amnesty After Atrocity? Healing Nations After Genocide and War Crimes, was published. Here she analyzes the debate over the best way for a nation to move forward after war crimes (including genocide) have been committed. She outlines the arguments of both those who favor punitive action and those who argue for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Cobban is also a contributing editor to "The Boston Review" and sits on the Middle East advisory committee of Human Rights Watch.

Three books about childhood

Surviving childhood only to mourn its disappearance is a theme that binds us all. For many of us, siblings help shape an emerging self-consciousness. But only children tell a different tale. In Only Child, edited by Deborah Siegel and Daphne Uviller, writers who grew up solo muse on "the singular joys and solitary sorrows" of the experience.

Photographs of children can reveal humanity in its most vulnerable, adorable, and hopeful moments. Full of Grace: a journey through the history of childhood is a collection of 300 remarkable images by master photographers from 1850 to the present. Author Ray Merritt places the emergence of photography as an art form alongside society's changing views of childhood. Chapters focus on a range of themes, such as "the celebrated child," "the curious child," and "the child in turmoil."

Few have escaped the middle school years without suffering from horrifying awkwardness. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney as if it were the journal of a sixth-grade boy. Already an online comic strip with a devoted following (www.funbrain.com), the first of three paperback books will be released in April.

– Kendra Nordin

Readers' picks

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman, an outstanding historical narrative enlivened by prose with sparkling syntax and revelatory information. This book should be required reading for everyone especially for those entering diplomatic service.
– Molly Larson, Monkey Island, Okla.

I recently finished Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. It's a great read about China then and now; a good follow-up on his first book "A River Town."
–Berta Anderson, Springdale, Ark.

Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell is the story of white/Indian relations and Western expansion told through the life of Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn. Compulsively readable, the book is equal parts history and biography. If you read only one book about the American West it should be this one, but be warned: This book will keep you up late.
– Ed Wren, Seattle

I'm reading the 2005 Man Booker Prize winner The Sea by John Banville. It has rich language and lyrical writing, and lives up to the Monitor's review that it "...has so many beautifully constructed sentences that every few pages something cries out to be underlined."
– Jeffry Gibson, Fort Myers Beach, Fla.

The Witch of Cologne by Tobsha Learner held my interest from start to finish. Set in the 1600s in Cologne, Germany, it weaves the troubled tale of love between a Jewish midwife and the canon of Cologne Cathedral. Along the way, the reader experiences the terrors of the Inquisition, the worldliness of the church hierarchy, and stunning betrayals of trust. And yet, the love is what lingers longest in the mind.
– Carol Jarrard, Augusta, Ga.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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