Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Book Review Club - A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman In Moscow
Amor Towles

Picasso had a blue phase (and a red one). As far as reading choices go, I've had a down under, a WW II, and now, mysteriously, a "communist" phase (is this what happens when your first leave the nest?).

Without realizing it, I picked out both a book to read and listen to set during communist periods--one in Russia and one in China. The one in China is achingly well-written, but since I've had about all the ache I can handle (again, see: first one leaving the nest), I am writing about the more upbeat, A Gentleman In Moscow. However, should you feel a communist phase coming on and need reinforcements, check out: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. So, so good.

Towles starts his tale with a verdict, a grim one. No, not firing squad (I did promise more upbeat). The year is 1922. The Bolshviks are firmly rooted in power. The old guard is slowly being weeded out, banished, "relieved of their duties" (okay, yes, there is some firing squad-ing going on, but it's off stage) to rid Russia of its entrenched aristocracy.

Except for one Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is, surprisingly, a Bolshevik sympathizer. His 1913 poem decrying the crushing of the 1905 revolt proves this beyond doubt. However, he seems to have since been poisoned by his royal blood, and while a firing squad truly seems the only way to deal with this "lost" sympathizer, there are those within the new regime that see he is spared, albeit banished within his own country, to the Hotel Metropole to be exact, to live out his days in a cramped former servant's quarters on the six floor.

And so begins an adventure that only twice leaves the confines of the hotel, and yet is ripe to bursting with love, loss, despair, parenthood, friendship, grace, espionage, so many things not even Count Rostov himself could ever have imagined, banished to a hotel in the middle of Moscow where he can only see the world he loves so dearly revolving around him, until he finally, for a love even deeper than country, risks it all.

Don't worry, I won't give away the ending. But it is REALLY good. What I loved so much about this book is Towles' mastery of phrase, unique manner of revealing the world through the eyes of his characters, and yes, all things Russian. It's a hidden world to me, one far more profound and complex and rich that Towles introduces with promise of so much more beneath, driving it all.

Although Towles begins with Rostov's statement that all poetry is "a call to arms", this book isn't the call you might be expecting. It is a call to hope, to love, to love even the most wayward, decrepit, seemingly fiendish of all, the enemy who has condemned him. No matter when I stopped listening, I felt uplifted, refreshed, dare I say, hopeful. It's something I feel as if we have all had so precious little of of late, and yet that we need to reaffirm and embrace anew what binds us all.

So, if you're feeling like hope, like believing in the silver lining again, pick up Towles book, enjoy the layers of meaning and discovery as rich and surprising as that great Russian stew, borscht, itself.

And then daintily dab your lips and take a gander down the smorgasbord of Fall delights laid out in all their splendor on Barrie Summy's website. Naslazhdat'sya! Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Book Review Club - Planet Jupiter

Planet Jupiter
Jane Kurtz
middle grade

I have the unexpected, great pleasure to participate in the Planet Jupiter blog tour. I've been a fan of Jane's writing for years (since she lived Kansas, a lot closer to my home in Oklahoma, and we presented together). So, while I know the author, I asked for an ARC and to participate in the tour--like a crazed reader fan. Fortunately, "crazed" doesn't put Jane off, and here I am.

Basic plot: Jupiter, a child busker whose nomadic family moves up and down the Pacific coast earning a living, is thrown out of orbit when her father leaves, her brother takes on a stationary job at a cafe to earn money to help Jupiter, her mom, and her adopted-cousin from Ethiopia, Edom, move into a house in Portland, while Edom's mom (Jupiter's aunt) undergoes treatment for cancer. Jupiter is thrust into the role of big sister, one she feels none too comfortable with, and wants to run away to the only life she knows and loves--busking. Edom wants to run away to find her mother. The two devise a plan to reach their goals.

Jupiter faces very relatable problems--welcoming a "new sibling", moving, the new and unexpected--that will awaken instant kinship in readers young and old. The novelty of her setting and family lifestyle/occupation, keep the reader engaged. This is a new take on moving house by actually moving into one. And while Jupiter doesn't have much trouble making friends thanks to her nomadic/performance drive life, Edom does. The disparity in their personalities and experiences speaks to more than one type of reader.

One aspect of the story that was harder for me to relate to was that Jupiter so readily forgave her father his many shortcomings, not least of which--leaving her. She displaces her anger on her mom's new love interest, which feels very true to life, but I would have expected more anger, more lashing out, more frustration at being abandoned. Jupiter does plan to run away, but back to the life she knows, and she never completely comes off the rails. She is fairly steady. Edom isn't. She is younger, and has already lost one parent. Maybe that is truer to life, and maybe that's why the emotional arc feels softer to me. Fictional plot trajectories have a tendency to cut years off what might happen in real life and/or combine a lot more subplots into one, or spike the climax more than what would happen in an actual setting. Still, dividing the climax across two characters, and having the supporting character feel the abject hopelessness of her situation more poignantly did soften the resolution for me.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to love in this story. From a craft perspective, Kurtz makes use of the busking profession in a creative way. She starts each chapter with verse from a folk song that resonates throughout the chapter, subtly prepping the reader for the events about to unfold, and highlighting the emotional trajectory via song.

The subplot about urban foraging for food has me wracking my brains as to whether my city is as edible as Portland, Oregon, which would be a fantastic jumping off point for classroom exploration of the world immediately surrounding any school.  Or go out and see what part of your city you can eat. And somebody warn the crickets and ants. They are some of the tastiest delights in any neighborhood.

For more great reads, whistle on over to Barrie Summy's site. She's belting them out, and in verse!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Book Review Club - The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas

While I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, the chair of my department, Paula McClain, hired me to be one of her research assistants, caveat - I was the only white person. I had no idea what that meant when I started. I knew what it was like to be a minority. I'd lived in German during Desert Storm, when Germans protested the war, stoned the Kennedy Haus just meters from my apartment. It was the first time I tried to "pass" for someone I was not, namely German. I was afraid to be American.

In the years that followed, while I worked as Paula's research assistant, I had the rare opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. I began to understand how subtle racism can be, and how overt, but missed by somebody white because I only saw the world through white eyes.

I'm still learning. This book is seminal in that process of learning and understanding. Although it's been said a lot before, it's a timely story, one that fosters dialogue, that opens a window into what it means to be African American in the U.S. today. It's a book much-needed by our polarized culture.

Basic premise: Starr Carter, who is from a poor neighborhood and goes to school at a preppy suburban school, is the only witness when her friend, Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer one night. Starr is caught between her two worlds and deciding, basically, what kind of woman she wants to be. How will she handle the situation? Will she speak up? Will she keep quiet? Who are her real friends? Was she really Khalil's friends? This book is packed with so many existential and hard issues, decisions, and transforming situations. Every chapter is a discussion waiting to happen. It's challenged me to re-view the way I see the world, the way I interact with others, the way I perceive.

One of the most interesting craft aspects of this story is the use of language. Thomas moves between the way Starr talks when she's at home in her neighborhood (Garden Heights Starr), to the way she talks when she's at school (Williamson Starr). Khalil's death forces Starr's two worlds to collide, and Thomas cleverly uses linguistic variation and mixing to underscore and heighten the merging of those worlds.

While I worked for Paula, I collected data for updates to her book, Can We All Get Along. It's no easy feat. There are a lot of possible points for clashing. The Hate U Give addresses some of them, and what happens when we refuse to see beyond the easy answers, the stereotypes, when we don't see why those stereotypes may exist, or the role each of us plays in making our culture.  Ultimately, Paula gave me hope. Thomas gives me hope. Because they challenge me to grow and engage in getting along.

For more thoughtful reads this Spring, visit Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bundle!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Book Review Club - The Sun is Also a Star

The Sun is Also a Star
Nicola Yoon

Whenever a book gets a lot of buzz I am, for mysterious reasons, wary and skeptical. However, with The Sun is Also a Star there is plenty of merit to the buzz.

Basic Premise: Natasha and Daniel meet one fated day in NYC. Daniel is supposed to be pursuing the next step from high school to becoming a doctor--an interview for Yale. Natasha is doing everything she can to avoid her family's deportation. Their paths cross and they discover a new kind of love, one held shortly but as brightly as a supernova.

From a craft perspective, there is a lot to take away and chew on. Yoon weaves in the concept of muliverses, i.e. multiple universes existing at the same time (the Trekkie in me was thrilled). She also uses multiple POVs, as well as storytelling formats, to underscore the multiplicity of life going on in, around and through us.

Her use of both has me thinking hard. Sometimes, ever so rarely, a new form of storytelling is born, such as script format, play format, epistolary novels, text format, email format, a combination of all of the above. I don't think this particular combination of multiple POV, as well as light play format to divulge backstory and concurrent stories, will become a new form of storytelling. Rather, Yoon's compilation of pieces of different forms of storytelling to underscore the multi-nature of her story is singular, perhaps unrepeatable, because of its singularity of purpose and style, but it works. And it has me wondering, what else one could combine to underscore a story's plot, character, etc.

The other significant issue going on in this novel is that of immigration. In this case, Natasha's family is clearly, unequivocally, illegally in the U.S. from Jamaica, whereas Daniel's family moved her legally from Korea (and, ironically, eventually goes back to live between the two countries). There are novels of material for discussion here. How are immigrants treated, especially in the current U.S. climate? What happens when we deport illegal immigrants--to them, our society, and their native society? These are questions painfully in need of discussion now, if for no other reason than they help us as individuals mine and discover, perhaps even expand, the boundaries of our own humanity. Embracing the difficult conversations is something that seems to be getting lost in the current climate, and yet it is so integral to fostering a healthy, ethical, evolving community and country.

Okay, okay, enough of the soapbox. Enjoy The Sun is Also a Star. Writers, there is plenty to steal. Readers, there is plenty to ponder. For more pilfering great finds, sneak over to Barrie Summy's website. She's got a whole van full (down by the river :-).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Book Review Club - Spare and Found Parts

Spare and Found Parts
Sarah Maria Griffin
YA - Horror

I cannot watch scary movies. Can't do it. I went to Nightmare on Elm Street for my 16th birthday. It was the first and last scary movie I saw in a theater. I still have nightmares. Which is why I love the literary horror genre so much. It's limited by the reaches of my imagination, which is scared (and satisfied) with a lot less fright than your apparent horror movie buff. I'm such a wimp. Still, I have found my horror outlet. Yay!

Add to that that Spare and Found Parts is a retelling of Frankenstein (I own the annotated version because what is horror without proper annotation, I ask you?) set in a future Ireland. Irish horror? I'm hooked already.

Basic premise: Society was brought down by the almighty machine, i.e. computers, and is now in a post-computer (read: computerless) age. Humankind has suffered a pandemic that killed millions. Still, people are born without certain body parts. Enter Nell Crane. She became sick with the pandemic as a child and needed a new heart. Her father, renowned prosthetics maker, Julian Crane, fashions one out of metal for her. It ticks (there are overtures of The Wizard of Oz here too). The ticking makes Nell feel separate from others, not like them, so as her contribution--her buy in into society as a grown up--she decides to fashion a partner completely out of metal, a "new/old" android. The only thing missing is a brain, which her father ultimately supplies in the form of a contraband computer memory slip. Thus, Nell awakens her own monster, one to parallel her feelings of monstrosity. Will they fall in love? Can they? Will Nell's contribution be accepted or cause her to be ostracized from society? One must read to find out!

There is a lot more going on in the story, of course--an unrequited love interest toward Nell on the part of the local undertaker's son, Oliver, his secret claims to her, Julian's attempts to reanimate his dead wife, hidden computer archives, a best friend, an enormous statue fashioned by Nell's late mother that is a surrogate sister to Nell, and a grandmother who is a naturalist  and thus adamantly opposed to Nell's artificial life/monster--that add to the richness of this story.

There is one craft issue that has me puzzling. Griffin tells the story in omniscient third; however, she will, from time to time, in a separate chapter, use second person to hone in on Nell, but also step back from her. Nell is the focus of the soliloquy. It was unclear to me if the speaker is Nell reflecting on herself or an unknown narrator. Nor am I entirely sure what the change in POV is supposed to elicit. It does pause the storytelling and force the reader and Nell to focus more particularly on a particular event and/or moment in time. I don't dislike it. It isn't jarring. I just haven't quite puzzled out how I can take and make my own as a writer because I haven't discovered what it does for the piece for me. Again, always the sign of good writing for me--it makes me think.

For more good reads and things that go bump in the night, sneak over to Barrie Summy's website. There's no telling what stories (dead or alive) lurk there. Bwahahahahaha!!!!

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