Friday, September 19, 2014

Windows on the World by Matteo Pericoli

When I was young, I used to love looking at architectural drawings.  Yes, even blueprints.  There was something magical, in my eyes, about how these simple line drawings could communicate so much.  When the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened up a wing that featured some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings, I was enchanted.

Which is why, when I heard about Windows on the World:  50 Writers, 50 Views by Matticeo Pericoli, I wanted to read it.  The concept is simple enough.  Pericoli, an artist, architect, illustrator, draws images from photographs given to him by various writers.  The writers also provide descriptions of the view they see from where they write.  The book, as a result, works as a unified anthology.

The illustrations especially serve as an anchor with Pericoli doing an elegant job of interpreting what each writer sees.  Even the drawings, which are so looking out onto a variety of places, are also connected with one another because each window pane and frame is drawn with hashtag lines.  This is a subtle choice on the artist’s part, reinforcing the how these short essays, although written far apart and by different people are, themselves, interconnected.

As with any anthology, I enjoyed some of the pieces more than others.  This is one of the reasons I recommend people read anthologies.  You can discover writers you enjoy without the risk of being halfway through a novel you find insufferable.  These essays are all exceptionally short, most only a few paragraphs long, a few lasting longer than a single page.  My favorite pieces are by the following writers:
Joumana Haddad
Rotimi Babatunde
John McGregor
Andri Snœr Magnason
Rana Dasgupta
Xi Chuan
Sheila Heti
Lesley Tenono
Francisco Goldman
Daniel Galera
Maria Kodama
The essays themselves have unique tones, some pragmatically describing the view, detailing the flora and fauna or the absence thereof, while others are more poetic, seeking metaphors in what is seen and not seen.  Common to almost all of the authors is the absence of distractions, something commented upon time and time again, whether the author was writing in a wide open space, a more compact suburb, or even in a highly populated city.  The rooms themselves are left to the imagination of the reader because we only see what the writer sees from a single window.  But each essay is a reminder that, with an eye open to perceiving as much as possible, there is a wealth of wonders to be seen even from a seemingly narrow view.

Have you read any of the authors listed above?  Can you recommend anything specific by any of them?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row

So much of what I’ve been reading lately has been reinforcing the events that keep coming up in the media (news, social networking, et al) that I was sort of desperate for a novel that would help me escape for a bit.  I’d skimmed through a few “recent publications” and “coming soon” newsletters and one title intrigued me, mostly because of the cover and that it’s a science fiction.  I figured, if anything would get me away from the world, a novel that’s set in a different world. 

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row is the novel I chose.   Kelly Thorndike returns to Baltimore after experiencing a personal tragedy and is reunited with a high school friend, Martin.  Only, Martin is no longer recognizable because he’s gone through a racial reassignment surgery and is no living his life as an African-American man. 

I guess I should have known that a book about a man who changes his race wouldn’t exactly help me elude the racial tension splashed out across the news.  Still, the premise intrigued me.  Why would a Jewish –American man choose to become African-American and why does Martin want to “come out of the closet” as it were?  These questions were reason enough to push me to read this book.

The characters themselves are well-written, with back stories that give a reasonable impetus for their actions.  As their stories are revealed, it is easy to see what motivates each man and the author never miss-steps in maintaining the psychological integrity of each.  The secondary characters, however, are mostly two-dimensional and easily forgettable.  The sub-plots are worse, detracting from the primary narrative and go nowhere.  They neither add layers to the characterization nor advance the plot in intriguing ways. 

Most interesting is the missed opportunity to fully explore the weighty issue of race and identity.  Most, if not everything, the characters say or think about race is unique from the typical white-liberal-guilt one might find bantered about on social media or at a dinner party.  Maybe I wanted, even needed, something more aggressive, more transgressive—Spike Lee cum Chuck Palahniuk.  Maybe I expected or hoped for more emotion, passion, feeling.  In the end, I read a novel that served as a distraction because it was intellectually intriguing while being (dare I say it?) ultimately forgettable.

Footnote:  The author has published a few short story collections and won several awards for his short fiction.  I am curious to read some of his shorter works because I he obviously has talent and it may be that he’s stronger in short form.   

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta is the novel that inspires the recent HBO series.  The television series is, naturally enough, breaking away somewhat from the specifics of the novel’s narrative, moreso than the television series Dexter did with Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter.

Both the novel and the series focus mostly on the Garvey family—Kevin, the father, Laurie, the mother, Tom, the prodigal son, and Jill, the adolescent daughter—and Nora Durst, who lost her entire family in an unusual event when the 2% of the entire world’s population disappears.  The survivors all struggle with grief and function, more or less, in a world that no longer makes sense.  Naturally, there are religious zealots who believe this is The Rapture but there are also those who have their doubts, including a minister who feels it’s his mission to enlighten those who have remained behind by showing them that those who disappeared weren’t all saved.

The novel does an excellent job of revealing many complicated characters and their back stories, something the television show hasn’t quite accomplished although it seems to be trying to do so.  The different points-of-view of the various characters propel the story along, leading up to what is, ultimately, a thoroughly disappointing conclusion.  Let me be clear that I was not expecting an explanation for why or how the many people simply disappeared.  In fact, I think I would have been more disappointed if some unsatisfactory explanation had been provided.  Let me also say that I don’t mind unhappy or even ambiguous endings.  This novel offered none of these things.  Instead, it feels like the author wasn’t sure how to end things and succeeded only in creating some vague closure that simply didn’t work for me.

One can only hope and assume that the television show will do a better job.  However, David Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, is responsible for this show and many of that show’s loyal fans were left woefully unsatisfied with that show’s final episode.  In the meantime, if you’re watching the show and don’t want to be “spoiled” wait until the end of the first season.  The show has been renewed for a second season which means there is room for the program developers to depart more vigorously from the necessary narrow focus of the novel’s narrative.  This could work in their favor.  I don’t see how it could possibly hurt.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a middle grades novel that takes place in the area of New Orleans that was affected most horribly by Hurricane Katrina.  Told through the first person voice of Lanesha, a twelve-year-old “orphan” who sees things others cannot, the reader experiences a few short days leading up to the day that the hurricane reaches shore and the aftermath of the levies being breached.

The novel remains true to its intended audience throughout, avoiding political statements of any kind and not overly exploring the horrors of the events.  I don’t mean to suggest that things are not horribly difficult for Lanesha and her Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who helped deliver her and has raised her ever since.  But because both are given the gift of sight, flawed as it may be, they have a chance that others do not.  However, they also have no means of evacuating their home and are forced to ride out the storm and its aftermath as best they can.

Some parents will probably take exception to the idea of Lanesha’s ability to see ghosts or take offense at the thought of her teenaged mother giving birth to an illegitimate child.  Frankly, I find the reality of what happened to the citizens of the Ninth Ward, those Americans who were abandoned because they were too poor to buy their way to safety, far more vulgar and disturbing.  Patricia Smith has published a stunning collection of poetry which is also rooted in the circumstances that surrounded this page in American history.  I hope that books like these will continue to find themselves in the hands of those who are compassionate and unblinking when it comes to facing the past.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

The True Blue Scoutsof Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt is a charming middle grades novel about a pair of raccoons (the titular True Blue Scouts), a boy (Chap Brayburn), and their shared love of the swamps where they live. 

I was only a few chapters into the book when I knew what would happen, how the overlapping stories would work together for a happy ending.  I even stopped reading for a bit and wondered if I should even bother or should just forego the story altogether.  In the end, the author’s voice encouraged me to continue because the book is told in a delightful way, almost as if the story were being read aloud to you.  (This is one of the reasons why, about 2/3 of the way through, I told Rob we needed to buy a copy of this book for Bibi.)

I don’t think that the target audience for this book will be able to guess how everything will end quite as easily as I did but I know that children will find this book a joy.  What they won’t realize is that, as they are hearing/reading it, they are learning a lot of interesting things about different species and how they behave, history of conquistadors and such.  The subtle details of symbolism will be overlooked by younger audience members while older ones will have many “aha” moments of appreciation when subtle use of foreshadowing and delicious metaphors are used throughout.  And if the adult doesn’t chuckle at the name of a particular group of hogs then I don’t know what to say about that adult’s sense of humor.  This is one of those rare books that adults will enjoy sharing with their child(ren).  (Again, I really want to get a copy for Bibi.)

Because of things that have been happening in the world all over the news, I wanted and needed a little something to read that would help me to escape and this book was a delightful choice.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a middle grades graphic novel that has won the Michael L. Printz Award and I can fully understand why.  The parallel stories of The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and last but not least, Danny are engaging and even amusing.  All three characters struggle with identity and accepting who and what they are in the face of society’s stereotypes.  Narratively intelligent, the drawings are likewise wonderfully executed, giving visual force to the emotional meaning of the story—from the humorous to the heartbreaking.

So why didn’t I adore this graphic novel?  I will say I loved the first two parts of the Monkey King’s story but, when it came to the all-too human parts of the novel, I was simply uninterested.  I felt for the two boys but I was turned off by the potty humor that was meant to lighten an otherwise serious narrative.  Perhaps this novel suffered in my eyes which were still dazzled by the brilliance of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  After all, both novels address the issues of identity, of confronting stereotypes.  But for me one novel simply did it better.

That is not to say I would not recommend this graphic novel.  Not by any means.  I can see where teachers could use it to encourage resistant readers while tackling serious topics such as racism.  And both books have clever illustrations.  Still, this book just didn’t do it for me and I can’t praise it with nearly the same enthusiasm as I did the other novel.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is one of those books that some parents find offensive and insist be removed from school reading lists and libraries.  One school (in Stockton, Missouri) banned it altogether for sexual content and inappropriate language.  The same fate befell it in Richland, Washington.  At least Newcastle, Wyoming left it in the library after removing it from the curriculum.  A small victory for a remarkable book.

When Junior gets in trouble at school for throwing a book at one of his teachers, it seems inevitable that he is heading for a lifetime of trouble.  Instead, the teacher does something surprising, urging Junior to leave the reservation school and continue his education off the reservation.  But doing so is not without its complications.  To leave the reservation is considered a betrayal of who and what he is but, with th support of his family, he takes a chance, leaving his only friend behind, daring to see what he might become. 

This novel is one of those rare treasures that is so well written, filled with humor and pain and love and honesty, that it can touch any reader of any age.  It is impossible not to feel a deep sympathy or even empathy for Junior.  The illustrations by Ellen Forney are brilliantly matched to the text, occasionally rough and immature, at other times showing a deeper reflective quality altogether.  The novel is a semi-autobiography, with the author drawing on his own experience and he does a powerful job of sharing every facet of his life—from the most brutal to the most loving—without aggrandizing or accusing anyone, most especially himself. 

The final sentence literally gave me chills.  I can’t remember the last time a book did that to me and I won’t soon forget this charming book.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

About fifteen years ago, I had the idea for a novel, one in which two stories would be told, each informing and, in some ways, overlapping the other.  The basic premise began with a woman, unhappy in her life, finding a journal.  As she reads the journal, she becomes obsessed with the writer, wanting to return the journal somehow.  Then I read the blurb for a novel that was being praised and recommended (for the most part) everywhere I turned:
 In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Can you imagine?  I couldn’t resist borrowing this book, even though I swore I wasn’t going to borrow any library books.  But hey, I’m on bed rest and I felt like I deserved a little something special.  And boy is this book special!

Ruth Ozeki’s A Talefor the Time Being is a treasure, one of those rare books that is so multi-faceted that as soon as you finish it, you know you could reread it and discover new things.  There are layers of contemporary culture overlapped with philosophy.  The two stories—Nao’s and Ruth’s—weave together.  Nao’s narrative is beautifully written, in a voice that is clear and present, while Ruth’s is told in the third person, affording the reader a necessary emotional distance because Ruth, herself, is mostly disconnected from her own life.  That is, until she finds Nao’s journal and begins reading it. 

There is a surprising subtlety in what the author accomplishes.  Nao’s name, of course, when spoken, sounds like the English word now.  In one of Ruth’s chapters early in the novel, we learn that “in Japanese, Ruth is either pronounced rutsu, meaning “roots,” or rusu meaning “not at home” or “absent.”  Although Nao’s intention in writing her journal is to share her great-grandmother’s story, mostly she uses the blank book as a diary, writing about her own “now” and Ruth, the reader of her diary, is both rooted where she is while feeling homeless.  Is it any wonder that she, of all the people who might have found the lunchbox, should find it, washed up on shore? 

I know I missed so many other nuances as I was reading.  For a while, I couldn’t put the book down but then things happened in the real world that felt too close to some of the emotional turmoil I was reading on the page and I found myself avoiding it because the characters made me feel too deeply. 

The characters made me feel so deeply.  I wanted to take them all, each flawed, fragmented one of them, and hold them close.  I didn’t want their story to end and yet I wanted them all to have a happy ending. 

And I don’t even especially like happy endings!

This novel is not easy to read because it demands a focus that most novels do not make upon the reader.  To appreciate how themes and experiences are echoed from one storyline to the next, it is necessary to remember so much.  I repeat, I know I missed a lot.  It is no wonder this book was short listed for the Man Booker Prize.  With so many allusions, so many layers, this novel lends itself to book groups, literary analysis in a college classroom, and definitely merits being read time and time again.   Just wonderful. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Curriculum by Stanley Bing

Fact:  I have no business acumen.  I know this about myself so I occasionally read books on business which I hope will give me some insight or information I can use.  So far, I can’t say that it’s ever translated to my having tangible success.  I remain eternally optimistic, nonetheless.  By which I mean, you’ll occasionally see a book review on some business book here in my blog. 

The Curriculum:Everything You Need to Know to be a Master of Business Arts by Stanley Bing purports to be “the only business school you will ever need” and it must be true because, right on the cover, there’s a seal from the National Association of Serious Students.  The book is divided into a course beginning with the “Core” curriculum and moving through “Advanced,” “Tutorials,” and “Electives.”  The chapters correspondingly are numbered the way a college curriculum would be:  101, 202, 303, etc.  Each chapter ends with exercises, although I’m not sure you would want to necessarily do them.  For instance, one exercise “Put on a Bluetooth earpiece and go to a Starbucks.  Conduct a business conversation in an audible tone until people look annoyed with you.  When you are able to do so without flinching, throw the Bluetooth away and never use it.”

This book is full of this type of humor, regaling the reader with such observations that those who are successful in business are usually insane, likening them to such luminaries as Stalin, Napoleon, and Sarah Palin.  From beginning to end, the writing is full of snarky insincerities mixed in with what one must assume is serious advice. It’s hard to discern the difference at times and I found it difficult to read the book for long.  The humor was best in small doses and sometimes made the book less enjoyable than I had hoped it would be. 

I think I’m just too old to appreciate page after page of snark although I’m sure it would appeal to Milennials and maybe even Gen Exers.  Some of the advice, of course, is rather obvious.  I’d like to believe that most business people have the sense not to tweet a picture of their private parts to anyone but I suppose you never know.  But with advice, including a chart, on how not drinking alcoholic beverages has professional consequences, it’s hard when to know something should be taken with a grain of salt.

Speaking of charts, this book is full of graphs and graphics which, I’m sure, are very effective in communicating the information, both humorous and serious, but they are in color so it is essential to read this on a device that supports full color or buy copy of the book itself.  You can sit it on a shelf in your office and anyone who hasn’t read it might be impressed.  Anyone who has read it, might make a joking reference to some idea contained therein.

I expected something more practical and profound.  Instead, I found myself occasionally chuckling and I may have even snorted once or twice but, over all, this is not a book I am likely to recommend.  Oh, and if you’re politically conservative, you should skip this book altogether.  Your sensibilities are likely to be offended. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

I said in a previous review that sometimes the path to a particular book can be oddly circuitous.  For instance, a few weeks ago I found out that Malinda Lo has a tumblr blog so I followed it because I had especially enjoyed her novel Ash.  Shortly thereafter, she posted about a YA novel that had been pulled from a school’s summer reading list.  I know I’m trying not to read any books that aren’t already in my personal library but I made an exception for this novel and requested it from my local public library. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth was probably doomed to be pulled from shelves somewhere given the topic.  A young girl kisses her best friend.  On the same day, her parents are in a fatal accident.  The two events are forever fused in the titular character’s mind and the guilt and confusion she feels is well handled in a novel that is complex enough to appeal to readers of all ages.

The first sexual explorations between Cameron and her best friend lead to other experiences with other peers, laying a foundation that is necessary for the later developments of the novel.  Inevitably, she is “outed” and her Aunt Ruth decides something must be done to save her niece from her sinful ways.  I was worried that the Christian characters in the novel would be left as two-dimensional hypocrites, caricatures of the dogmatically “evil” religious, self-righteous, you name it.  Instead, the Christian characters are well-meaning if misguided.  Not especially likable (and, okay, one in particular pissed me off but I think any reader would feel the same) but at least understandable in their motivations.

Cameron herself is a multifaceted and interesting young woman who, in her quest to find meaning also comes to a better understanding of herself.  Intelligent and compassionate in her writing, Danforth has done a powerful job of creating a character that feels familiar the more you read.  Even when Cameron isn’t sure why she is doing the things she does, the reader understands; even when she is making choices that are irresponsible, the reader cares.  It takes skill to allow a character to be fully-human and the author has talent to spare. 

As for its being pulled from the summer reading list—I totally get it and I thoroughly disagree with it.  This is a novel that explores sex and sexuality with such grace and honesty that it is simply to daring for some narrow-minded people to fully appreciate.  More’s the pity.  
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