Selections for June 2008
Grayson by Lynne Cox (2006)
Seventeen year-old Lynne Cox, aspiring long distance swimmer, was on an early morning training swim off Seal Beach, California, when she felt a rustle in the water below her. Imagine her shock when she discovered that it was a baby Gray whale, following her. Rather than heading for shore (in which case the whale might have tagged along, and likely beached itself and died), Cox decided to try to reunite the baby Gray with its mother. In Grayson, her account of what happened on that morning three decades ago, Cox shares her love and knowledge of the sea and its denizens, and explores the bond that can magically develop between creatures great and small. For everyone who enjoyed Cox's account of her career as a marathon swimmer in Swimming to Antarctica, this slim, sweet, rather quiet memoir is a must read, but it is also a good choice for any ocean-goers and animal lovers from the age of about ten and up.
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat (2007)
Reading Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying will likely bring you to tears, as it did me. Moving from well-reviewed novels (try the powerful and disturbing The Dew Breaker if you've never read any of her books) into the realm of memoir, Danticat opens with the day in 2004 when she learns that she is pregnant and that her father, André, is dying of pulmonary fibrosis. These two events, one happy and the other tragic, bracket Danticat's story of two brothers - her father, who decided to leave Haiti for the possibilities of a better life in New York, and her uncle, Joseph, her "second father," who chose to stay behind in Haiti. Edwidge and her younger brother Bob stayed with Joseph and his wife for eight years, from the time she was four until she was 12 and the two siblings finally got the visas that would allow them to join their parents in New York City. Danticat covers many topics, all written about in her cool, measured prose: the experiences of Haitian immigrants struggling to make a home for themselves in America; the poverty of Haiti and the terrors of living under the dictator Duvalier and his henchmen, the Tonton Macoute; and (most disturbingly) the bureaucratic nightmare that kept her 81-year-old uncle from joining his brother in New York. But in the end this is a story of life and death, of hope and despair, of love and choices made, decisions taken that echo down the years.
The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (2002)
I am just delighted that now a new generation of middle grade readers can meet the Melendy family in Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays and its equally enjoyable sequels, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two, since the whole series has now been reprinted. Hooray! Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver Melendy live with their father and Cuffie, their housekeeper, in a brownstone in New York City. One day the four siblings decide to pool their weekly allowances and take turns spending it all, giving each of the children a chance for a special day on their own. Their outings result in a new dog brought into family (whose name, Isaac, is an acronym for the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club); a new hairdo for Mona, and, for Randy (who's been my favorite character in this series ever since I read first read it when I was a little girl), it's connecting with an old family friend who had an amazing adventure in her own childhood. The Melendys move to the country in The Four-Story Mistake, adopt a brother in Then There Were Five, and, in Spiderweb for Two, Randy and Oliver try to solve a series of mysterious clues they discover when Rush, Mona, and their adopted brother Mark Herron go off to boarding school and leave the two younger children behind.
Just looking at the cover of Tim Flannery's Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Creature, you get a good sense of the book: a kangaroo is reclining under a bright blue sky and hot Australian sun, his (or her) ears perked up, a bird perched on one flank, staring out at you from beneath hooded eyes, looking for all the world like a creature out of Alice in Wonderland. You can almost imagine her (or him) saying, "Welcome to my strange and wonderful world. Be prepared to be amazed." Not to accept that invitation is to miss out on one of the most entertaining and informative nonfiction books I've read lately. It turns out that kangaroos are even stranger and more wondrous than I had ever imagined them to be. But this is more than just the story of kangaroo life styles and life cycles, their mating habits and their child-rearing techniques. It's also the story of the country the author loves best - Australia - and how its history and development are intertwined with that of its most iconic animal inhabitants. Part geology, part travelogue, part ecology, part ethology, part anthropology, part history, part paleontology, part natural history, and all of it always interesting, Flannery's book is a first-rate example of popular science writing. The first line of the introduction will give you a good sense of Flannery's style: "When I was young I met a man whose arse bore the bite-mark of a Tasmanian tiger"--who could resist that?
Caspian Rain: A Novel by Gina B. Nahai (2007)
I had the good fortune to meet author Gina Nahai at the Santa Barbara Women's Literary Festival this past February, and after listening to her presentation I can highly recommend her to any library looking for a captivating and intelligent speaker. Her subject was her Jewish-Iranian family and their experiences in the years leading up to the cataclysmic 1979 Islamic Revolution. This is also the time period and setting for Caspian Rain, her fourth novel. Yaas, the 12-year-old narrator, is the child of badly mismatched parents. Her father was born into an upper class secular Jewish family whose social circle revolved around the country's Muslim elite, while her mother grew up in the Jewish ghetto in the slums of South Tehran. Yaas watches in despair as her father begins an affair with a beautiful and wealthy Muslim woman, and becomes even more distant and unavailable to her and her mother. Her sense of abandonment is only exacerbated by the fact that she is gradually losing her hearing. Among the strengths of this moving, poetic novel is how Nahai merges the political with the personal: the uprising against the Shah and his American-backed government with the class and religious war going on within Yaas's family - it's quieter, more internal, but no less destructive to the participants. She gives us the gift of a long and deep look into the workings of a culture, a time, and a place that is unfamiliar to most American readers.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (2007)
Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is sad and haunting, but at the same time it's somehow redemptive in its portrait of a woman who holds onto her sense of self through decades of incarceration in a mental hospital. Or does she? Each reader will have to come to her own conclusions about that. Set in present-day Edinburgh with long flashbacks to a time - the first half of the 20th century - when young women were still expected to behave according to rigid standards of right and wrong, and those who didn't adhere to societal (and their families') codes of behavior, expectation, and social mores were severely punished, we learn that independent and high spirited Esme Lennox was sent away by her family to a psychiatric facility when she was 16, never to be mentioned by them again. When the hospital she's been living in for over 60 years is finally closed, her existence comes as a total shock to her great niece, Iris, named on hospital papers as the person to call in an emergency. Iris, who runs a vintage clothing store, dallies with married men, and remains close to her half-brother, Alex, brings Esme home with her until she can find her another place to live. The meeting of the two sets in motion events that will gradually uncover long hidden (and maybe, blessingly, best forgotten) Lennox family secrets. Some of the story is told through the disconnected memories of Iris's grandmother (and Esme's sister), Kitty, who's suffering from Alzheimer's. How much of what she says can really be believed? The denouement of this slim, emotionally intense novel is, quite simply, stunning. This novel, Farrell's third, reminded me in many ways of Josephine Hart's The Reconstructionist, another outstanding work of fiction about family secrets. Book clubs take note.
History Lesson for Girls by Aurelie Sheehan (2007)
Horses, friendship, difficult families, and the ordinary and extra-ordinary pangs of adolescence are the subjects of Aurelie Sheehan's coming-of-age novel, History Lesson for Girls. In 1975, 13-year-old Alison moves with her parents to tony Weston, Connecticut, and finds herself in the difficult position of being the friendless new girl at school, a situation made even worse by the fact that she must wear an obtrusive back brace 23 hours a day in an effort to prevent the need for surgery for her scoliosis. Then Alison discovers that strong, outgoing, and very popular Kate Hamilton shares her love of horses, and the two girls become as inseparable as only young teens can be. Their friendship is challenged both by the behavior of their parents and by Kate's growing depression. Sheehan's often lyrical writing animates her largish cast of characters, and she's seemingly channeled the zeitgeist of the 1970s, best displayed in the description of Kate's father, Tut, a sort of New Age, free love guru whose charming and expansive public persona is far different from who is he when he's at home. He's a character whom I came to despise almost immediately, and will certainly never forget.
To Be Like the Sun by Susan Marie Swanson (2008)
The enchanting language of Susan Marie Swanson's free verse To Be Like the Sun stands on its own as a poem for children, but, as in the finest picture books, the text is beautifully enhanced by the illustrations done here by Seattle artist Margaret Chodos-Irvine, whose book Ella Sarah Gets Dressed was a Caldecott Honor selection in 2004. (When I asked Chodos-Irvine, via e-mail, how she created the pictures for this new book, which I took to be linoleum block prints, this is what she said: "There isn't really a name for the technique I use for my illustrations. I kind of made it up, using techniques borrowed from many printmaking disciplines. I call it "relief printing from mixed media". Linocut is also a form of relief printing. I just use non-traditional materials to print from instead of linoleum or wood. The illustrations in To Be Like The Sun were primarily done by cutting out shapes from various flat materials - poster board, wood veneer, cork, and others - then rolling a thin layer of ink onto the shapes and printing from those shapes onto a piece of paper using an etching press. I build up layers of color with different cut pieces and successive runs through the press.") In the book, a little girl plants a sunflower seed, confident that it knows what it needs to do under the soil ("the instructions are written on your heart"), waters it, watches it emerge from the earth, and grow and grow, and as fall and winter come, she thinks about the sunflower and how, even though "a sunflower seed/is smaller than a word," the flower itself (was) "taller than everyone./When the winter sky shivers," the little girl says, "with icy stars,/I remember how hard you worked/to be like the sun." Choose this for a story hour or a family reading-together time.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2007)
Shaun Tan's The Arrival is a book without words, yet it tells a compelling story. It's a picture book, but not one intended for young children. In it, the author/artist shares with us the wonder, excitement, and fear that accompany a recent immigrant when he leaves his homeland and family to make a new life far away. There's an aura of menace and looming danger in the pictures of the immigrant's country; you can understand why he would want to leave in search of a more welcoming, less fearful situation. (Looking at them, I was reminded of Giorgio de Chirico's painting Mystery and Melancholy of a Street; you should be able to find a decent reproduction of this piece online.) As the man sorrowfully says goodbye to his wife and young daughter (and the two sequential pictures of the three holding hands and then letting go of one another just may break your heart), he boards the ship that will take him to his new land. In those unfamiliar settings he faces both indifference and-slowly - acceptance and friendship from those he meets. Tan brilliantly universalizes the immigrant experience by making the country of arrival a surreal place that is as wondrously strange to the reader/viewer as it is to the immigrant himself. The buildings are weirdly sized and shaped, people travel by dirigibles, what's produced in the factory where he gets work is nothing that either he or we can identify for sure, and the local animals are bizarre (although that vaguely Dali-esque, oyster-ish, mouse-ish four-legged creature who first befriends the immigrant looks adorable enough to be real). Tan conveys so much in each of the pictures that every one, whether full page or smaller, calls out to be pored over. The power of visual art to tell a narrative tale - one that is both nuanced and complex - has seldom, if ever, been demonstrated more clearly than here. Book groups for middle-school students and above (including adults) will find much to discuss.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002)
Run, don't walk to your neighborhood library and pick up a copy of Donna Tartt's stunning novel, The Little Friend. Part mystery and part coming-of-age novel, with a young heroine who is reminiscent of Scout in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and a lot like Frankie in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. Set in a small Mississippi town in the 1970s, this is the story of 12-year-old Harriet Cleve and what happens when she decides to track down the person who murdered her older brother Robin - a terrible event that happened when Harriet was only a few months old. Compulsively readable, beautifully written, and filled with three dimensional characters, both good and bad (and the bad are really, scarily bad), this is one of those novels where I regretted having to put it down to do anything like else, like sleep, eat, or work. Quite simply: do not miss it. (A note to potential readers: I am not fond of the cover of the American edition of the book, so please don't be put off by it; in my mind it doesn't really convey anything about the plot or characters at all.)
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (2008)
In The Other Side of You, author Salley Vickers shows how each choice one makes is like a pebble thrown - carelessly or not - into a pond, causing ripples to spread out, inexorably, from the here and now into the future. Hospitalized after a failed suicide attempt, Elizabeth Cruikshank only slowly begins to share with the psychoanalyst assigned to her case the events that led to her decision to take her own life. The therapeutic relationship that develops between Daniel McBride and his patient begins a healing process for both, as they separately struggle to come to terms with the traumas in their respective pasts. Their journey together to a kind of self-acceptance illustrates Freud's assertion that the goal of psychoanalysis is to replace neurotic misery with ordinary human unhappiness, and Vickers shows us how even such a modest achievement is a major step forward from the past that led Elizabeth to actively pursue suicide and Dan to refuse to face his own demons. One added bonus of this outstanding novel is how Vickers uses a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio to further explore her themes - you'll want to have a reproduction of the work on hand when you read. She also uses a verse from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land ("Who is the third who walks always beside you?") as an epigraph for The Other Side of You, but she might just as easily have borrowed the one from E. M. Forster's Howard's End: "Only connect." I can't fathom why British novelist (and former psychologist) Vickers is not better known in America. Her novels (this is the fourth) are consistently thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful; her well-drawn characters illuminate the different ways we struggle to integrate sadness, despair, and moments of happiness into our everyday lives.
15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century by Stanley Weintraub (2007)
Between them, Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall had 15 stars - the first three (of only five) five-star generals. Their military careers were intricately interconnected before and during World War II, and afterwards. Each was a five-star general, and each, of course, played a central role during the war itself. Stanley Weintraub's 15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century provides readers with a good sense of the nature of each man, as well as the interconnections between the three. In many ways, Eisenhower was the pivot point between MacArthur and Marshall - at one time he reported to the other two, and then was appointed by Marshall as the supreme commander of the European theater of operations. World War II buffs may want to know going in that of the three, Eisenhower and Marshall come off the best, while the portrait of MacArthur will not bring him many new fans. Weintraub writes smoothly and non-academically, making this an excellent starting place from which to then embark on individual biographies or more in-depth military histories of the war.