Thursday, November 22, 2018

March Trilogy - John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell


I am not a usual reader of graphic novels (as I have probably revealed here before), but my son is - and in my attempt to understand his obsession, from time-to-time, I try to pick up one of my own.  March has received a lot of attention - and rightfully so.  It is the story of Congressmen John Lewis's experience as a critical part of the Civil Rights Movement.  While this is a story that most of us know on some level - I was blown away by how powerful seeing/reading it in this format was.  It's absolutely true that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think seeing the illustrations (like seeing actual photographs from the time) really brought home for me just how brave the people were who organized, marched, and literally put their lives on the line to fight for civil rights.  I took my son to the Comic Book Museum in San Francisco earlier this year - he wanted to see an exhibit on Raina Telgemeier - but there was also an exhibit there about March  - and how it came to be in graphic novel form - both in terms of getting the story told, and in the development of the illustrations.  It sparked wonderful conversation between me and my son, both for him to learn a bit about this important piece of our history, and in a shared appreciation for this storytelling form.

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

I love a good multi-generational story - Pachinko is a perfect beach-read with a little more going on.  It's the story of Sunja who lives in Korea and comes from a poor family.  After finding herself unexpectedly pregnant (and unmarried), she marries a man willing to take her and her unborn child as his own - and moves to Japan.  The book follows the family through generations, as they struggle with poverty and racism in their new country.  For the most part I loved this book - the story is compelling and I cared about what was happening to the characters.  There were some parts of the book that seemed oddly out-of-place to me - scenes where complicated characters were presented as one-dimensional, or simply written off and forgotten.  Like many multi-generational novels that cover so much - I often found myself just wanting to know more about a given character- or to learn more backstory - but I always remind myself that books are like life in this way. There are so many people that come and go in your life, many with interesting backstories that you'll never learn - or perhaps you only get a glimpse when you really want more.  For me, this was exactly the kind of book I like to read while on vacation or on an airplane - when I have time to really get into it.  Not perfect, but one of my favorite reads of the year.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Written in Verse

I've never been a huge fan of poetry - I don't find it that accessible when I read it to myself.  So, when there are popular books in verse, I tend to shy away from them.  But, here are a couple - which also happen to be YA (so maybe that's why I could sort of understand what was going on) that I recently enjoyed.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai: Set during the Vietnam War, this is the story of ten-year-old Ha, who lives in Saigon.  When her father disappears, she and her family (her mother and two older brothers) are forced to flee.  They end up in Alabama, where everything is foreign to Ha - the food, the smells, the language.  This story is absolutely beautiful in its language and imagery - in evoking the beauty of Vietnam, and the horrors and traveling unwillingly to a hostile country.  I read this book out loud to my son - and I think the power of the poetry was enhanced by speaking it rather than just reading it.  We had to stop a few times and reread stanzas just to talk about how incredible it was to be able to tell a story in such a form.  I was simply blown away by the brutality of this book.  The Bay Area Children's Theatre then did a production of this book - which I took all three of my children to - I wasn't sure how it would translate to the stage, though again hearing the words out loud brought so much more power to them.  This is an important story in terms of history- but also in terms of telling the story of relatively recent immigrants - how difficult it is to leave a country you love and where you feel you belong - and what means to give up everything to start all over in the United States.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander:  Someone recommended this book to my 7-year-old son, so I assumed that it was mostly just a book about basketball.  But, I wondered if he'd be able to get into the verse format, so I decided to read it for myself first.  I'm glad I did because while there is certainly a back-drop of basketball going on in this book - it's really about much more mature issues.  Twin brothers Josh and Jordan are phenomenal on the court - they play together just as you would expect twins to play together - as if they can read each other's minds. But as they are growing up - they begin to grow apart.  One brother has a girlfriend, while the other remains focused on his game.  And all the while they are also dealing with school, an aging father, and all the push and pull that comes with being a twin.  This is a wonderful coming-of -age story and the way in which the story is told help speed up and slow down the pace.  It almost felt as if the book had the pace and cadence of an actual basketball game.  I loved reading about all these typical family and sibling issues in this this really novel format.  I'm very eager to read Alexander's book Rebound - the prequel to Crossover which gives the background on Josh and Jordan's father. 

Young Adult (YA) Novel Round-Up

There's nothing like a quick YA read to make me feel accomplished - though of course often they also make me feel incredibly old.  But, this is the price I pay to get closer to my book-a-week reading goal for the year!

The Gaither Sisters Trilogy by Rita Williams-Garcia:  This trilogy, made up of  One Crazy SummerP.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama, is the coming of age story of Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern.  In the summer of 1968, the Brooklyn-raised girls are sent out to Oakland, California to visit the mother who abandoned them when they were just little girls.  Once out there, their poet Black Panther mother doesn't seem much interested in them - and the girls, raised to keep their heads down and keep in their place, are suddenly forced into an environment where they are taught to speak up and recognize their own power.  In the later books, the girls return home to Brooklyn to deal with a lost uncle home from Vietnam, and later on to their grandmother's home place of Alabama - where they learn that being black in the South means something very different than back home in Brooklyn.  I absolutely loved these books.  I loved seeing these girls find their power and voices - and I appreciated the head-on manner this young adult series presented and challenged concepts of race and identity in the United States.  Hopefully required reading in all middle schools, I can't wait until my kids are old enough to appreciate and discuss these novels.

Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson:  A co-worker left this book on my chair - mentioning that it was a fun creepy fast read.  I don't think this is anything I would have picked up on my own - but as long as you don't take it too seriously, it wasn't a bad form of entertainment.  When three teenage girls are found dead in a small town - the assumption is that they died by suicide. But the best friend of one of the girls knows better.  Mila, who has dabbled a bit in witchcraft, figures out a way to bring the girls back from the dead in an effort to learn how they really died - and to keep the town safe from any further murders.  As you might expect from a YA novel filled with teenage zombies - the dialogue is a bit too much to take at times - and obviously you have to lose yourself in the premise.  This reminded me a bit of the Sookie Stackhouse books in terms of the writing.  I wouldn't highly recommend it but nice for a quiet evening at home.

Wonder by R. J. PalacioI received so many recommendations for this book - from adults and young adults.  I appreciated the idea that it was helping younger students to learn and express empathy and perhaps to be more inclusive to students with differences.  For the most part, I enjoyed this book - I liked the way it was written and it tells a good story - albeit heartbreaking at times to read.  As most people know by now, Wonder tells the story of a boy (August) who is born with a facial difference - that causes other people to stare at him, and to often times be afraid of him.  As a result, he is ostracized, and there are even parents who do not want him at school because they believe he makes their children uncomfortable.  What is excessively emphasized throughout the book is how intelligent August is - far more intelligent than the average student at his school - which does go to prove the point that physical differences don't necessarily amount to intellectual differences.  But what if they do? This point was highlighted late in the book when August uses the r-word - as if to differentiate himself, or see himself as better than people who do suffer from intellectual disabilities.  While I found his use of the word perhaps realistic in his frustration and anger, it just didn't sit well overall with me since the use of the word was never addressed in the book.  And early on in a new school August is befriended by a student who is seen as somewhat popular in the school.  This helps him to acclimate somewhat to school and feel ok about everything - this seemed highly unrealistic to me - but perhaps it was the author's point to show the difference that once student could make.  To me the book was a bit overly-simplistic, BUT - as I say when I criticize books or movies by and about people of color - we have to start somewhere - and it seems like this book has gotten a lot of conversations started that are hopefully leading to more inclusion and acceptance. 


Angry Optimist by Jon Stewart:  Fans of The Daily Show who miss Stewart will probably enjoy this book - not because it contains anything that new or insightful but because it's just something about Stewart.  It's an easy-to-read telling of his rise to stardom from humble beginnings - the usual rags to riches story filled with incredible failure - where you marvel at how determined some individuals are to make their dreams come true - and also how overlooked obvious talent so often is.   Most of the book focuses on his time at the Daily Show - I'm not that interested in the inner workings of television - more interested in Stewart's own brand of humor and his own insights - which is probably why reading a biography of his life, was not as fulfilling as reading something actually written by Stewart himself.  But, it had some interesting tid-bits and was worth a quick read.

On the Move by Oliver Sacks:  I'm a big fan of Oliver Sacks - I first started reading his books in 2007 when I wanted background on neurological disorders.  He was a tremendous story-teller and made complicated brain science accessible and completely fascinating to the average person like myself.  On the Move is Sack's memoir - about his fast-paced life, his obsession with motorcycles, his drug addiction - it's a brilliant look into how the personality traits that makes someone so determined and successful can also lead dangerously close to their demise.  This book was published just shortly before Sack's death in August 2015 - reading it after his death was a nice way to learn more about about and hold on to his genius.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton:  At the beginning of this year, I decided to open myself up to a few "self-help" type memoirs - the type that talk about life reaching rock bottom, and then how people find the will to keep going on, to reinvent themselves, etc   I have no idea why - but I thought maybe I could gain some perspective and generally feel like - well, if these people can pick themselves up after so much loss/tragedy/etc, then surely I can find a way to be more positive about work and life in general!  Can't hurt.  I think I probably picked this one up because it was an Oprah Book Club Selection, and I have read Melton's blog Momastery once in awhile and thought it was pretty funny.  But, it turns out that sometimes a book about hitting rock bottom can be so incredibly depressing that it's hard to find the message in the end.  This one is about Melton's marriage (which takes on new meaning when you know that she has since gotten divorced and remarried), and the lengths so go to to forgive - even when it absolutely seems like there is no reason she should - and maybe that was my problem.  I felt like she was punishing herself and bending over backwards for someone who she just didn't seem to belong with - and I guess it turns out that was true.  I was ambivalent at best about this one.

Non-Fiction Round-Up

The Stranger in the Wood by Michael Finkel:  I am interested in the concept of hermits - the idea that there are people so introverted, or perhaps so disenchanted with the world, that they would choose to live separate and apart from it.  So this book's subtitle: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit called out to me as I wandered through a local bookstore.  Christopher Knight lived in the Maine wilderness, with almost no human interaction, for nearly thirty years before he was arrested for trespassing.  In the retelling of his story, it becomes clear that while Knight has lived apart from society, he has not lived independent of it.  In fact, he is heavily dependent on other hard-working individuals for his food and creature comforts - because over the decades he lived in the woods, he systematically stole from the communities in his nearby surroundings.  His presence created a sense of terror among the people he burglarized, and while he believed himself to be somehow better than the people living in the materialistic world he shunned, he absolutely could not have survived without them.  There is some interesting background in this book about the effects of solitary confinement and social isolation on most people, revelations about individuals who have purported to live hermetic lives, and a real attempt to understand the type of person who might choose this life (mental illness and ASPD both explored as contributing factors).  But ultimately, I mostly found the story of Christopher Knight irritating - and I questioned the integrity of the author himself, who had never truly been invited by Knight to tell his story.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish: I can always use a little more laughter in my life, so when comedians come out with memoirs, I usually don't hesitate to pick them up.  I'm actually not familiar with Tiffany Haddish as an actress.  I've heard she's quite funny, but I just haven't watched many shows or movies recently, so I wasn't familiar with her work.  But, I decided to read her book anyway.  From the get go it's obvious that this woman's success certainly has not been handed to her - she tells both heartbreaking and hilarious stories about her childhood and difficult rise to stardom.  While some of her humor crossed the line a bit for me - I do think that anyone who knows they enjoy her genre of humor would appreciate this book - and be incredibly impressed by what she has survived, overcome, and embraced in her life.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari:  Ugh.  I hate when you find out stuff you don't want to know about famous people you like (or any people for that matter).  I think Aziz Ansari is hilarious - but after what came out about him  in the wake of the #metoo movement, it's hard to view him in the same light.  Modern Romance is Ansari's witty observations about dating life in the modern world - much of which I feel like I'd seen as part of his stand-up or other late-night show appearances. For any Ansari fan, I'd recommend this book - it has some clever lines and I laughed out loud at times- but given the circumstances, I am disappointed and don't feel right (right or wrong) recommending this to anyone.

Clock Dance - Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler rarely disappoints - she's one of those writers who always seems to have a new book out.  So, when I experienced a reading drought over the past couple months, I thought Clock Dance might be just the book to get me out of it (the cactus on the front was the perfect symbol for my drought!).  Clock Dance has many of my favorite elements in a story - it's about a woman, takes place over time, and focus on her relationships - to her husbands, to her children, and to others around her - in attempt to find her way.  Willa Drake, the main character, does not have much to commend her.  She seems like the type who goes along to get along - puts up with irritating men, and allows her children to disrespect her.  So when faced with the opportunity to develop a meaningful connection with someone who actually needs her, despite making no logical sense, she finally takes a chance - for herself.  The unfolding of this story is painful at times, but also hopeful - filled with what ifs as Willa is forced to discover how much power she has to undo the terrible decisions she has fallen into over the years and finally make the happy life for her that she deserves.

Fiction: A few stories about family

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal:  A co-worker recommended this one to me, and I'm so glad - it turned out to be one of my favorite books in awhile.  Eva Thorvald has always been a little different - as a kid bullied and on the outs with her peers, she becomes obsessed with hot peppers, and seems to have a knack for cooking.  There's a little mystery that goes along with her talent, but eventually, her pop-up restaurant becomes one of the hottest tickets in the country.  Along the way, this is a story about family and loss, and a lot about food.  A little fanciful at times, but very enjoyable.

The Heirs by Susa Rieger:  This book is a reminder to me that I always mean to keep better track of where I get my recommendations, so I can go back to the good sources.  This was another solid novel about family and the secrets that threaten to destroy them.  When a wealthy husband and father to five boys passes away, he leaves behind his fortune - and perhaps a mistress and a couple extra children.  This book follows the family as they each cope in their own way with their memories of their father, and the acknowledgement that he possibly was not who they actually thought he was.  I feel like this basic plot has been done over and over, but I appreciated the writing style of The Heirs, and I'm always one for a little dysfunctional family drama.

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford:  It's hard to imagine that the follow-up to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet could be anything but a disappointment.  After all, can lightening really strike twice?  So, I approached this novel with a mixture of excitement and a little trepidation - I really wanted to love it, but would have been so sad if I didn't.  Turns out, all my worry was for nothing.  Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of Willam Eng, orphaned as a young child, who becomes convinced that a famous actress is actually his long-lost mother.  William and a friend escape the orphanage, full of hope, on a quest to discover the truth behind the famous Willow Frost.  As the storytelling balances between the Great Depression and the 1920s, I was full of anxiety - hoping for William to find the mother he'd always wanted, and worried that he would find nothing.  A beautiful story of loss and home, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.