Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Book Review Club - I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Erika L. Sánchez

Do not judge a book by its cover - this is a recurring theme in this story. Guiltily, I admit, the cover was part of its initial appeal for me. I grew up near Chicago so the lake to the right and Sears Tower there to the left--or whatever it's called these days--grabbed me. Even more so, the title. It entices with so much. Conflict, for one. Then, for some, a new culture. For others, resonance. And for others still, all, none, and/or something entirely different. Which all adds up to: I was hooked before I ever opened the book.

Basic premise: Julia is the black sheep of her family. When her older sister, and perfect Mexican daughter to their parents, Olga, dies in an accident, this becomes even more apparent, and, ultimately, unbearable. Julia spirals down into a depression she has already long suffered from, until she attempts suicide. No spoilers. That's just the first half of the book. The second half is Julia's journey of self-discovery, while also discovering who her seemingly perfect older sister really was, and how that reshapes how she sees herself.

The story moves from Julia's home and school in Chicago, to a mental clinic, to Mexico, to, ultimately, New York. It is packed with new characters and new settings. I have rarely seen an author pack so many "sets" into a book. It works, but it's not one of those books you read slowly. The faster you get through, the easier it is to juggle the cast.

Also, the easier it is to grapple with the first half of the book. Julia is depressed. Her sister is dead. Family expectations get heaped on her. It's too much, especially for a teenager. And while her character and the way she acts are very real, she is, ultimately, a hard character to like.

One of the things I talk with kids about when I do author visits is what kinds of stories we want to read vs. how we want our lives to go. Arguably, we want to live "happy all the time". We want to have all the clocks in the world stop at night and everybody gets to accidentally sleep in but without any consequences, ace the math test, have pizza every day for lunch (almost anyway).  BUT, we do not want to read "happy all of the time". It's, well, boring. We want bad things to happen to characters in stories.

After having read this piece, I'd add, but we still want to like those characters. We don't want them to be too much like us, or, for too long anyway. Julia is rough on the world. She spreads a lot of unhappiness and hate. She is biting, sarcastic, angry. She's very real. Her personality very much fits her circumstances. It would be nearly impossible not to be that way given her depression, environment, and the devastating loss of a sibling. At the same time, reading her experiences of the world is abrasive, it's hard, it put me off at times. I'm not proud to admit that, but it was my emotional reaction. This may be because the world right now feels too abrasive, harsh, and indifferent at best already. Literature tends to be where I go to take a break. This was no break. This was a harsh reality.

Nevertheless, it's an important story, an important view into the world of depression that so many suffer from, a way to begin to understand by getting inside a fictional character's thoughts for just a little while and realize how overwhelming psychosis is. It's the kind of book that would do really well in a classroom, fostering discussion, being shared, rather than read alone and leaving the reader to process alone. But however read, one thing remains certain, this story will move a reader. It will stick with them. It may even change them. Sánchez has created a masterful story, from the very first word of the title itself.

For other story gems to light up these winter months, check out:

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Book Review Club - Six of Crows

Six of Crows
Leigh Bardugo

It's not the classic horror that I can't seem to stay away from this time of year--little known fact: having the bejeezus scared out of you scares away the Halloween candy calories too--but it is classically, ruthlessly good fiction.

Six of Crows is the story of a gang from the worst side of Ketterdam, a fictionalized Amsterdam replete with canals, ruthless trade and traffiking of every kind, and, of course, drugs. Come on, it's Amsterdam. Even in a fictionalized version, drugs are a must. My favorite quip from my then 12 year old as we were walking out of our vrbo apartment on the Leiedesplein, the last ring of canals around the city, toward Hotel American to catch the street car: "Ah, there's nothing like the smell of fresh pot in the morning!' Amsterdam is Amsterdam.

And drugs drive this story. A gang from the Dregs (think: Redlight District) is hired to break a famous scientist, the creator of a drug called parem, out of a high security prison in Fjerda, a country known for its warrior-soldiers, and bring said scientist back to Ketterdam to the Merchant Council, specifically merchant, Jan Van Eck, who hires them. Supposedly, the Council has chosen a gang, rather than trained soldiers, because they feel a group of criminals has the right experience and deviousness to outsmart warrior-soldiers. Plus, this all must be done far below the political radar.

Gang leader, Kaz Brekker, pools his most-talented members--Inej, the Wraith; Nina, the Grisha (kind of witch); Matthias, a Fjerdan who's fallen out of grace with his command unit; Jesper, sharpshooter; Wylan, disgraced son of Jan Van Eck and bombs expert.

The story is told in close 3rd, moving chapter after chapter among the six characters POVs. It got a little confusing at times since it was close  3rd. I had to scroll back to determine from whose POV the chapter was being told. I'm not sure the always added to the storytelling, but at times, it is clear why Bardugo did it. She needed to get inside the head of a character, and instead of doing that piecemeal, she went Full Monty, and committed for the entire story. That said, Bardugo delivers a fast-paced, action-filled, plot intense tale.

The craft point I found most interesting is that, while Bardugo resolves the initial problem - breaking the scientist out of jail and getting him back to Ketterdam - at the same time, she creates a pressing, new problem that is not resolved at novel's end, So, strings loosened and cut at the beginning are reattached in new and interesting ways, but new strings are undone. This is book one of a duology and my guess is that Bardugo had sold both stories together and had the freedom to end the first book with unfinished business to lure readers into book two - Crooked Kingdom - which I am reading now.  So yeah, it works, at least it did on me, and I am notorious for not reading anything but the first book in any sort of continuing saga. My reason: the author put all she had into book one. Those that follow are just staying in that universe. So far, that's my experience with book two, Crooked Kingdom.  It isn't a bad thing. There are just so many other, new stories to read. I'm hopelessly behind.

The question this leaves me with, however, is how much newly unfinished business can a writer leave at the end of a story? Readers like things tied up neatly if the story is going to be over, but what if we writers purposefully don't deliver? What then? Gabriel Garcia Marquez does something akin to this at the ending of One Hundred Years of Solitude but how far can we push it? And what is the result? It feels like fairly uncharted territory for the novel--varying the degree of satisfaction vs. wondering we leave the reader with at the end of a story. It's almost the very premise of a story -- dissatisfaction and its multitude of forms. Hmm...

For more great reads, click on the Book Review button below. Go on, no tricks, only treats!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Book Review Club - The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein
Marie Benedict
Historical Fiction

To review or not to review - The Other Einstein. I've got serious reservations about the story told in these pages. Reviewing it gives the work press (teeny tiny press, but press). I don't know if that's a good thing. At the same time, the reason I have such reservations is based in a dilemma all authors at one time or another face - ethical boundaries to truth stretching. Given the current climate in the United States, maybe it's a dilemma worth revisiting, if for no other reason than to foster healthy dialogue.

But we'll get there. First, the premise.

The Other Einstein is an historical tale told around Albert Einstein's first, wife, Mileva Maric. Maric was a brilliant physicist who met Albert while they were both physics students at university in Zurich. Accounts vary as to whether she actually tutored him to help him get into the school, or was "just" his love interest. While Albert managed to pass the rigorous exams and earn his PhD, Mileva got pregnant with their first child, out of wedlock (early 1900s), flunked her exams, twice, thus never completing her degree. This fictional account begins when Mileva travels to Zurich to begin university, and ends with the couple's divorce. It is told in epistolary form.

Many of the facts about Mileva's life are lost to history. Historians aren't even sure what happened to their first child, a daughter, Lieserl. She disappears from Mileva's life within the first two years after her birth. They don't know for certain what role Mileva played in Albert's academic work. Some posit she was a collaborator and/or the mathematical brains behind his theories, including the theory of special relativity.

And it is at exactly that juncture - Mileva's role in Albert's work - that Benedict begins to dance on the boundaries of ethics, especially for an academic. [Confession: My first career was as an academic. I have a PhD in poli sci.] There is truly nothing worse for someone who spends her life working on theory and discovering new aspects of the world to have recognition of said work stolen. Benedict writes into her story that, while they collaborated on a number of papers, Albert stole Mileva's ideas, that the theory of special relativity was hers. He had the academic title and thus took the work and all the credit, even the ensuing Nobel Prize.

Benedict states in the Afterward that there is no proof of any sort of role Mileva may have taken on in Albert's research, but why not take the supposition to its ultimate possibility - Albert stole her ideas. It's a hefty lie, and while fiction, even its lies require justification.  Which brings up all sorts of questions:

1. Is the lie really necessary to create a riveting tale? Mileva's story is already fraught with personal handicaps (both physical, and given the time period, gender-related), loss & grief (of a child & a second son with a mental illness), grief (of her marriage and failed career), disaster (see all of the above), heartbreak (divorce).

What does adding fictional fuel to the already massive bonfire that became the Einsteins' unhappy union do for the story? Why paint Albert Einstein as such a louse? He divorced his wife to marry his cousin. It's bona fide, juicy NONfiction scandal. He create a cruel list of demands if they were to stay married that turned Mileva into his servant. He was unfaithful. Some researchers have found evidence he beat Mileva (also a facet Benedict includes in her story). Isn't that enough? How does making him seem an unforgivable, unethical thief add to this tale? When does too much thrill begin to do harm?

2. What effect does the lie have on fact? So little is known about Mileva Maric. This may be the only book many will read about her, and it skews the facts we do know. How many readers will scour the libraries, talk with academics, spend hours on the internet to learn the truth? And how many will simply write off Albert Einstein as a brute of the worst sort?

3. Which gets at my final and most soul-searching question: what responsibility do we writers have to the truth in our fiction, especially when that truth is so heavily laden with its own ghosts and trauma? When is weaving lies from truths to make story going too far?  Sure, we do it all the time. Every good lie has an element of truth. Every damn fine story does too. But how far can we go? When have we gone too far?

Clearly, ethical boundaries are ever shifting, and dependent on more than one variable. And a writer's first responsibility is to the work. She is supposed to kill her darlings, write as if she has a knife to her throat, entertain her reader, hell, keep them on the edge of their seats, but sometimes, the truth is more than up to the task, and sometimes the lie, while entertaining, does harm that cannot be undone. And that leaves me wondering: when does the lie become intolerable, even for fiction?

For more fascinating Fall reads, head over to Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bushel full.

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 :-).