Alchemy by Margaret Mahy

Alchemy book cover


Billed as magic versus willpower, the real thrill of this young adult fantasy fiction from story master Mahy is how much seventeen-year-old Roland changes over its course. He starts off as a high school dominator, taking it as his due to get the best marks in school, sit on the best outside seats during lunch hour with the other high rankers in his gang including most popular girlfriend, being liked by the teachers,  and generally having his way. By the end, his casual judgements of others and his sense of arrogant deservingness have been replaced by a sensitivity and a compassion that make him much more likable.

Mahy makes it credible by bringing these qualities out so gradually that the reader understands Roland had it in him all along. Roland slowly discovers things about himself and his family that make him understand other people in a new way, too. The plot of alchemy between Roland and Jess, the girl he is assigned to investigate, parallels the subtle developmental arc, the true alchemy, that of Roland’s character. This is the kind of reading I love.

New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2003

Singing the Body

Today as I look forward to rehearsing with  Sahara Peace Choir for an upcoming concert, I recall the teachings of sound healer Gina Sala. Awhile back, Gina led Kirtan devotional chanting at the Yoga Sky Temple, high above the bay in Yelapa a fishing village south of Puerto Vallarta.  She mentioned that when she feels herself being judge-y about someone, she sings about the person in order to bring herself back to heart. Gina’s practice of singing about a person encourages me to call on that mysterious part of me that can bring me to larger heart.  Gina went on to speak of the Oneness, but in a manner juicier than I had ever heard before in the description of a spiritual path. Her love of God is happiness, she said. It is power! It gives her a refreshment, in the way sleep gives refreshment! Her  happiness overflowed into her voice like a waterfall. I left the Sky Temple longing to be as juicily devoted to the Great Mother as this young teacher/healer was.

Next day, at a voice healing session, she shared a hands-on practice called Greeting the Body, a practice she never omits, even when she might omit every other practice. In Greeting the Body, certain syllables are sung to certain parts of the body; one’s eyes are open, one’s hands are on that body part, stroking, patting —  saying good morning! Gina described the practice as an act of love and affection, an offering to the self. The point is a daily sincere greeting of oneself as Divine.

My recollection of these may not be completely accurate, but here they are as I now sing them:

Hamah, top of head;

Meme, face; (pronounced may-may)

Hahamah, neck; (accent first syllable)

Yaya, heart;

Rera, ribs;

Vava, pelvic bowl;

Lala, tailbone area and legs.

Though Gina grew up in an ashram, her path to the Divine by taking pleasure in body buzz is beautifully Pagan. Let’s all sing. We don’t need to join a choir. Let’s sing our longings and confusions, our offerings and petitions. Let’s sing to keep ourselves aware of the Divine during each passing day of our short lives. Let’s sing to the Beloved within us as we wake, as we walk down the street. We can sing so softly no one else can tell we’re singing. Let’s use this stunning human capacity to craft our lives into a juicy song of love.


Every Day by David Levithan

A beautifully startling premise! Daily incarnation, and, the changing body doesn’t limit love. “A” wakes every day in a different body and no explanation is given. A world like ours except for one thing. I didn’t think the author would be able to sustain it, but despite some story gaps at the end, he kept the premise intact; even credible, if suspending disbelief is one of your pleasures. If it isn’t, then accepting this magical realism premise may not be up your alley.

What I find powerful and arresting is what this premise allows the reader to experience via the first person point of view of A: an absolutely original normal, one I have not heard expressed in YA literature before.The gender frontier is crossed repeatedly, until it is no longer the focus to a reader immersed in A’s pov. I find this an amazing accomplishment in literature.

Other frontiers are crossed as well, and it could be argued that dilution and didacticism intrude. I leave the love story and the ethical questions to other reviewers. But wow, despite any shortcomings, this is a prejudice-busting story, an adventure that, whether they like the tale or hate it, will in some nuanced way affect every reader’s perception of gender forever. Kudos to the author.


Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

The book title, Never Fall Down, is borrowed from a command Arn Chorn-Pond gave himself in order to survive. He lived through the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Though Patricia McCormick tells Arn’s true story in a fictional format, she interviewed him extensively and traveled with him to the Cambodian places named in the story. Here is Young Adult literature that demonstrates how a boy of war becomes a man of peace. From the reader, it demands courage as few books do. It hauls open the eyes, wrenches the heart, and forever enlarges one’s compassion. McCormick has done the world a great service by bringing Arn’s story to light.

Here’s a clip from Harperteen: Author Patricia McCormick interviewing Arn Chorn-Pond:   

New York: BalzeR + Bray/harpercollins, 2012