Oct 27, 2014

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

I think this book is semi-autobiographical. It is the story of a young man in his years at prep school, a school that focuses on literary achievement. Quite bookish. Every year the school invites several famed authors to visit, and encourages the students' writing efforts with a competition. They submit a piece of writing, and the visiting author chooses one. The prized reward is a one-on-one chat between famed author and student writer. The boys compete fiercely for this honor, and talk about it all year. During the course of the novel, Robert Frost and Ayn Rand both visit the school. The final author in the lineup is Ernest Hemmingway, but he doesn't show. Through it all, the narrator, our unnamed boy, is searching for himself. Searching for himself as a writer, searching for his identity as a person, as a friend. There are subtle duplicities going on- he doesn't quite admit to his friends who his family really is, wanting to obscure parts of his identity in order to fit in, and it bothers him the entire year. When finally a chance comes and he realizes how he can show the truth of who he is, it involves another kind of fakery, which gets him expelled. And who will he be now? What does it mean to be a writer, what does it mean to tell the truth? to live it?

This is one of those books I think I need to read again, to see it more clearly. I was glad that I have read a number of poems by Robert Frost, one or two books by Hemmingway (including For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, so at least I had an inkling of what was going on when those authors visited and spoke. But I know some of it still went over my head.

Rating: 3/5     195 pages, 2003

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Oct 26, 2014

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

A woman working in the very specialized field of book conservation is brought into Sarajevo to study and write a report on a very rare, ancient Jewish book called a haggadah. She finds bits and fragments of things within the binding and pages- a piece of insect wing, a grain of salt, a single hair, a dark stain and so on. These fragments get taken in turn to other specialists who can reveal something about their nature, and from that historical fiction is spun about where the book came from, where it had traveled, who held on to it and how it changed hands. This book had high promise for me, but I got bored and then disgusted with it. The character of the conservator became annoying. And her constant affairs with colleagues. And her nasty relationship with her mother. After fifty pages I began skimming. At first I was reading the present-day portions (still interested in the details of preserving very old books) and more or less skipping the historical parts which quickly became dense with history too light on character development- I simply could not become interested in any of them. The first piece about a young woman who joins resistant forces hiding in the mountains during the Bosnian war, held me. The second one, about some depraved people (equally desperate) in Vienna, did not.  That's when I started just thumbing through. I did pick up again the final historical chapter about the actual illustrator, way back in ancient times, the description of the immense labor and time it took to create such beautiful pages was interesting, the constant drama and liaisons were not. Then I started reading the current narrative again and instantly lost focus when it turned into a mystery and crime scene at the end. I didn't want to be reading that kind of story. And I'm not, anymore. Moving on.

Abandoned       372 pages, 2008

Oct 23, 2014

I'm Not Scared

by Niccolo Ammaniti

The Italian countryside, a small village of just five homes. Stifling hot summer days. A group of kids go off exploring on their bicycles, and one of them, nine-year-old Michele, makes an unexpected discovery in an abandoned house. A monstrous secret he holds back from his friends, but realizing something needs to be done, he tries to tell his busy father but keeps getting brushed off. Then he tries to handle it himself. Making up scenarios in his head, trying to figure things out, not seeming to recognize the gravity of the situation. When he finally understands that things are closer to home than he'd realized, it's really too late to fix things, and his attempts to save the situation only make things worse.

I can't really say what it is without giving the story away, and the surprise of it made this a riveting read for me. This book also has horrible things going on, but very different from the last book I read. We see everything through the filter of Michele's eyes and for a long time he does not seem to recognize what is really going on. His days are full of negotiations with friends and sometimes-enemies, dealing with his little sister, trying to get his father's attention, avoid his mother's anger (she naturally gets upset when he wanders off all day). The secret in the empty house is at first just a peripheral curiosity, but becomes a looming worry as the story progresses, until it is too big a thing to solve. Ammaniti knows how to tell a story- the childrens' teasing and squabbles, jokes and games, concerns and so forth are so accurate to what kids are really like- plus quite funny at times. The sense of place, rolling countryside full of wheat fields, oppressive summer heat, flavor of Italian idioms and culture, even the odd viewpoint they have of Americans (I puzzled for a very long time over what the "little wash-bears" might be) were vivid. It has a terribly tragic ending, but was a good read nonetheless.

Rating: 3/5      200 pages, 2001

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Oct 22, 2014


Pete in School
by Maira Kalman

I don't quite know how to describe this picture book. It's nuts, funny, quirky and downright hilarious. I have a suspicion there's a few of them revolving around the dog, Pete, but this is the first I've encountered. This girl tells about the day her dog went to school, caused havoc in several classes, ate a set of encyclopedias and started talking. Then caused all sorts of new trouble because he suddenly knew everything and the kids wanted him in class to answer questions for them. Throughout the silly story of a dog in school there's all sorts of little hilarious asides and snide remarks on the school rules, the system, the quirks of various teachers, the girl's friends and classmates and so on. With these awkward but descriptive drawings and funky handwritten text (even the copyright info on the first page is handwritten into a picture on a classroom wall!) that really liven up the story. It's great. Way beyond the comprehension of my little one, but my ten-year-old ate this book up. I've got to find more by this author.

Rating: 4/5     44 pages, 2003

Oct 21, 2014

Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

Nicknamed 'Bone,' Ruth Anne's family is a sprawling clan of very very poor folks in southern Carolina. The men are notorious for being violent drunks, shifty men who can never seem to work their way out of poverty, no matter how hard they try (many don't even seem to care). The women are tough, bitter and fiercely loyal, keeping to their own. Bone doesn't know who her father is. Her sister's dad died in an accident, and the loss devastated her. When her mom falls for a new man, everyone wants her to have another chance. Even though they all seem to mistrust and despise him, they turn a blind eye to what's going on for her mother's sake. And Bone is the one who suffers. Her new 'Daddy' is an abusive man of the worst sort, and in a terribly twisted way, he makes Bone feel guilty for the violence and attention he fixes on her. I knew before I had read very far that something awful was going to happen in the end, and it did. A compelling read, with characters that tug at your heart, even as you cringe at the things they decide to do. Bone has a very difficult coming-of-age, growing up way too fast, living through devastating experiences. I found the ending, the mother's choice, appalling. I don't really understand it.This is a powerful book, but also one that's difficult to read. I am not sure I will ever want to open this book again. The afterward merits close attention, and I read it with appreciation. The author discusses the overlapping distinctions of memoirs and novels-based-on-fact, hints at her own efforts to deal with a painful past, the reaction schools and parents have had to her book, her response to that, her conviction that we need to hear this story. Girls in particular.

Rating: /5       320 pages, 1992

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Oct 19, 2014

Palazzo Inverso

by D.B. Johnson

This very imaginative picture book draws its inspiration from the work of M.C. Escher. In a whismical, dreamlike story it features a young boy Mauk who is apprentice to a master builder. Mauk is supposed to only sharpen the master's pencils, but it seems he has turned the drawing around when no one was looking. As he runs through the corridors, courtyard and staircase of the palazzo in construction, things turn one way and then another, the ceiling becomes a floor, the staircases run the wrong way, all is confusion. The workers try to catch him, the mistress leans out windows the wrong way, the Master calls out, but in the end they see that all is right, even turned every whichway. The Master (and Mauk) realize the building is more beautiful in its confusing ambiguity. You read the book left to right, then turn it over and read it back the other way, with the pictures telling both sides of the story (beginning and end). It's quite intriguing. My favorite spread is the one where the boy runs over the bridge- on one end of the story birds and fishes are in their place, at the other end the birds are in the water and fish swim in the sky. Delightful!

Rating: 3/5     32 pages, 2010

Oct 18, 2014

April's Kittens

by Clare Turlay Newberry

April lives in a small apartment with her parents and their beloved cat, Sheba. When Sheba has kittens, the little girl is delighted, but her father is concerned- their place is too small for four cats, so the kittens must go. Of course April falls in love with them, and has an especial favorite. When new prospective owners come visiting, she watches anxiously as they each pick out a kitten. Finally only one is left- and it's her favorite. Her father decides that they will give the mother cat to her her aunt, and keep the kitten "you'd rather have a kitten to play with, wouldn't you?" but soon April realizes this will mean giving up the cat she has known for so long- and what if Sheba isn't happy in her new home? a young kitten would adjust easier. She agonizes and sheds tears, then finally decides to send the kitten to her aunt's house, and keep Sheba instead. But when she announces this idea to her father, he has a new plan that might allow them to keep both cats.

I have to say, not everyone would find the final solution practical, but it's a neat and tidy ending that leaves everyone happy. What makes this story shine are the very realistic conversations everyone has over the fate of the kittens- April wondering, tearful, hopeful at turns, her mother gentle and consoling, her father very matter-of-fact, other children questioning and thrilled with the kittens too. The illustrations are simply delightful. They are so beautifully drawn and depict precisely feline gestures and moods.

I snatched this up when came across it on a library shelf (I'm familiar with a few other books by this author/illustrator). The book is a little advanced for my three-year-old; I have to edit out about half the sentences on a page or she looses interest but the illustrations are so endearing, she still wants to read it with me (my older daughter read a few of the picture books I brought home last week too, and this one was her favorite).

Rating: 4/5       32 pages, 1940

Oct 17, 2014

The Book of Negroes

by Lawrence Hill

Moving story of woman who was abducted and sold into slavery at the age of eleven. She was forced to march for months from her village to the coast, then suffered the horrors of passage on a slave ship. She was sold to the owner of an indigo plantation (I had never read of how indigo dye was made from raw plant material; the brief description in the book prompted me to look more info up online). Later she was sold again to a well-to-do Jewish man and worked in his household in the city. She carried with her skills as a midwife first taught by her mother in Africa, and was eventually able to earn some of her own income as a slave "hired out". Also never forgot where she came from, never lost her burning desire to know more, to learn, and to return home. She learned to read and write, always taught and helped those around her when she could. Her life is a long tale of one degree of suffering and indignity after another. She is torn from her loved ones time and again. I was amazed at the fortitude that kept her going, at the passion that remained between her and her husband, even though they did not see each other for years and decades at a time. She became known as an educated woman among her community, which caught the attention of white people- not always to her benefit. During the Revolutionary War, she was employed to write up a ledger keeping records of blacks who wanted to leave the States- they were promised freedom as Black Loayists if they had served the British cause. She ended up in Novia Scotia, where after years of struggling to survive, realized that this new life was not living up to its promise. Then she travelled to Africa in a longed-for effort to find her home village, and then eventually ended up in London where she proclaimed her story to help the emancipation effort.

It's a long story. I started to loose interest about the point where she moved off the plantation, but the end of the book picked up again, because this was a part of history I knew little about. It was a lot like Roots, but did not feel quite as emotional or powerful to me. This book has been published with another title: Someone Knows My Name.

Rating: 3/5      486 pages, 2007

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Oct 15, 2014

The Adventures of Jerry Muskrat at Home

by Thornton W. Burgess

I haven't read one of these little books in a while, so this was a fun diversion. Like all the other Burgess books, this one uses a story featuring talking animals who act pretty much like real wild animals, teaching about the natural behavior. This one features a muskrat who is busy building his home near the edge of the pond. The rabbit admires his work and scoffs at the effort, he would never go to all that trouble. The muskrat and other animals point out how wise it is to be prepared for winter. Soon the fox happens along, and he schemes how to get the muskrat to leave the water so he can catch and eat him. He pretends to admire the muskrat's house, flattering him and claiming he wants help to build his own house. When this ploy doesn't work, the fox tells the muskrat where he can find carrots at the edge of the farmer's garden. Both animals think they are out-smarting the other- the muskrat goes to the carrot patch alone, and figures out a way to reach the carrots without exposing himself to view. Then the fox finds he's gone without guidance, and tries to catch him there. In the end the muskrat realizes how serious the fox's deception was, and feels he can no longer trust anyone- who else might seem to be his friend, and only pretending to get an advantage? He nearly falls victim to a trap, which shakes his composure even more. In the end the farmer's boy finds and disposes of all the traps set to catch the muskrat, and he is once more safe from predators- both natural and man-made.

Rating: 3/5      206 pages, 1926