Monday, May 30, 2016

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

Reviewed by Ambrea

Junior has spent his entire life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  Born with a wide variety of medical problems, including seizures and dental issues, he find himself picked on by everyone—except his best friend, Rowdy.  But when an incident at school spurs Junior to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town, he quickly learns he’s probably the most hated person on the rez.  Determined to receive a good education, Junior aims for  high grades and a position on the basketball team that earns him the unexpected admiration of his peers—and discovers a courage and strength he didn’t know he had.

Written by Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a wonderfully engaging novel that recounts one young man’s struggle to earn the education he deserves.  And, while I did find the story appealing, I decided to pick it for the simple fact that it was on the banned books list (again) for 2014.  Like Captain Underpants (yes, seriously), The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Bluest Eye, Alexie’s novel has managed to appear on the list not once, not twice, but five time since its publication in 2007—and I was curious as to why so many readers found it so offensive.

So, I read it.

I can see why certain readers may have problems with the book.  I mean, adolescence is a rather terrible time to endure.  Between puberty, peer pressure, coming to grips with one’s sexuality, bullying, social and cultural expectations, it’s a very messy business.  But that doesn’t stop Junior from telling readers all about it.  It might host some material that’s unsuitable for younger readers, such as sexually explicit and/or strong language, violence/violent behaviors, but I think it’s definitely a novel worth reading.  While I did pick up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because it ended up on another banned books list, I finished it because it’s a great YA novel and an engaging piece of coming-of-age literature.

Sherman Alexie does a wonderful job bringing Junior’s character to life, offering an intimate glimpse into the conflicts he faces and the difficult choices he must make—and, more importantly, giving readers a chance to see the person he becomes.  After all, Junior is a smart kid.  He makes an intelligent, insightful narrator, and he manages to weave his story together with all the familiar angst and anger that any teenager feels on a daily basis.  He works hard to further his education and, at the recommendation of his geometry teacher, sets out to learn at a local school beyond the reservation.  Not only does he face being ostracized by his community for leaving, he’s initially ridiculed by his peers at Reardan and he endures a scathing sense of abandonment after his best friend leaves him.  He tells you his struggles, tells you what he thinks and feels, giving you a candid account of what it’s like to be a kid who feels like a fish out of water.

Even though Junior has much different life experiences, I always felt like I had the ability to connect to him.  In telling his story, he shows the real struggles that most teenager face:  loss, love, friendship, failure, tragedy, harassment and bullying, parental and social expectations.  He makes his story accessible, recounting the universal experiences that many teenagers are likely to endure in high school.  He’s a wonderful, candid narrator with a heart of gold and he’s a fantastic storyteller, appealing to readers with both his words and his illustrations.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I’m glad I took the time to read it.  There’s just something about Sherman Alexie’s novel that makes it so very good.  Perhaps it’s Junior’s illustrations, or his storytelling abilities, or his heart-wrenching story as he recounts his sudden move from the rez to Reardan—or exceptional trifecta of amusing illustrations, a wonderful narrator, and a great story—that makes it such an iconic work for young adults.  Either way, I found it to be a fantastic novel that was appealing and, more importantly, accessible.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Shoot the Moon by Billie Letts

 Reviewed by Ambrea

DeClare, Oklahoma, in 1972 is a poor, windswept town where anything noteworthy rarely happens—until the murder of a young mother, Gaylene Harjo, and the disappearance of her son rocks the community to its foundations.  Although investigators searched for the boy, Nicky Jack was nowhere to be found and, as the years passed, his family lost hope he would ever be located.

Thirty years later, Nicky Jack mysteriously returns to DeClare.  He has a new name, a new family, a new identity, but he knows his roots lie in this small, dusty town and he knows the answers to his past are located here.  As he tries to reconnect to his mother’s community and uncover her murderer, he unearths long-buried memories and stirs up dashed hopes, desperate love, and hidden secrets that may just tear DeClare—and Nicky Jack—apart.

Shoot the Moon has an intriguing premise:  a small, American town turned upside down by a grisly murder; a boy returning home to discover the truth of his past; a mystery and a secret buried deep beneath the quiet façade of a seemingly amiable old town.  It has all the elements of a suspenseful, family drama, and I think it succeeds in weaving together all these qualities to create an interesting novel.

It’s a murder-mystery, so parts of Billie Lett’s novel are unpleasant.  Like the abusive, corrupt sheriff, for example, or the mean-spirited and manipulative radio station owner.  They both made my skin crawl (as they probably should, given their repulsive qualities and their participation in the debacle).  There are good characters, of course, like Teeve and her mother, and I even liked the caustic newspaper reporter who has a bone to pick with DeClare; however, I found it’s sometimes easy to let the bad things overrun the story.

Admittedly, I wasn’t completely invested in Shoot the Moon.  I finished the book, because I sought closure, but I wasn’t completely committed to it.  I’m not knocking Letts’ novel.  I mean, I found it thoughtful and interesting.  It’s a comprehensive examination of human nature, a story of justice and redemption that sometimes takes a circuitous route, a family drama that, ultimately, finds a happy resolution.  It’s a decent novel, but I can truthfully say it isn’t a book I will pursue twice.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Nevermore: Beavers, Dust, Magicians, DNA, and Truth

Reported by Ambrea

This week, Nevermore brought an assortment of new books to our meeting, including some wonderful things from our new shelves, and some interesting nonfiction about the natural world.  Kicking things off, one reader introduced a book by Hope Ryden titled Lily Pond:  Four Years with a Family of Beavers.  Our reader was especially excited about reading Lily Pond.  After having read it several years ago, she couldn’t wait to return.  She was thrilled with the prospect of revisiting a noted naturalist’s studies of these busy, busy beavers and the beavers—named Lily and Inspector General—themselves.  Written in the tradition of Jane Goodall, Lily Pond is an interesting (and sometimes amusing) account of the natural world and some of its more industrious workers.  She said it’s a great book to read and, pointing out the beaver family tree that charts Lily and Inspector General’s offspring, it’s highly informative.

Next, our reader returned to a book familiar to Nevermore, revisiting The Dust That Falls from Dreams by Louis de Dernières.  A sweeping epic that follows the McCosh, Pitt, and Pendennis families through the turmoil and trials of the Great War, The Dust That Falls from Dreams is a startling and immersive story that that traces the lives of these sons and daughters who find their lives turned completely upside-down.  Louis de Dernières’s novel received some very positive reviews in the last meetings, and our reader was likewise intrigued by the premise of the novel; however, she thought the “ending seemed tacked on.”  Although she enjoyed the novel as a whole, saying it was a lovely book that delved deep into family dynamics, she wasn’t entirely satisfied with its conclusion.

Switching gears, Nevermore looked at a lovely little fiction book called The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.  Sabine, who has spent the last twenty years as the wife and faithful assistant to the magician Parsifal, suddenly finds herself a widow and gripped by the realization that her husband’s family, which he claims to have lost in a tragic accident, is very much alive.  Reeling with the death of Parsifal and the discovery of a new branch of in-laws, Sabine finds herself taking a journey to unravel the mystery of her husband’s forgotten family, which will lead her from the sunny skies of Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska.  Our reader said, “It’s a pretty good book—I mean, it’s a very good book.”  He enjoyed the dynamic between the families, their dialogue and their interactions, and he liked the way the author played out a complicated situation.  It’s an enjoyable novel, he told the group, and he highly recommended it to other readers.

Our reader also introduced a brand-new nonfiction book to the meeting:  Herding Hemingway’s Cats by Kat Arney.  An in-depth study on DNA, specifically how in influences everything from eye color to cancer risks to predilections for alcoholism, Herding Hemingway’s Cats takes a long hard look at the DNA incorporated in all living cells and the “molecular switches” that tell genes when and where to work.  Our reader originally though the book was about cats (in particular, Hemingway’s curious feline polydactyls); however, he quickly discovered it’s actually about genetics in general.  Although he said he enjoyed most of the book, he noted that it’s very dense and sometimes difficult to understanding.  He found much of the information fascinating, but he didn’t read the entire book; rather, he picked out some of the “sweet stuff” to highlight for the other members of Nevermore and shared some fascinating facts about six-toed cats, unusual mutations, and lactose intolerance.

Last, Nevermore looked at a brand new novel by Annie Barrow titled The Truth According to Us.  During the summer of 1938, Layla Beck is given an ultimatum by her father, a senator:  get a job with the Federal Writers’ Project (a New Deal employment program released by Franklin Roosevelt), or else.  Left with no alternative, Layla quickly leaves on assignment for Macedonia, West Virginia.  She’s stuck with reporting the history of the remote mill town, a task she’s less than thrilled to receive; however, as she settles into Macedonia and meets the Romeyn family, she is quickly drawn into their complex world and realizes that her assignment is a little more complicated than she ever suspected.  Our reader thought Barrow’s latest novel was an intriguing mix of history and fiction, combining some of the best elements of both to create an engaging and fascinating story.  Overall, she thought The Truth According to Us was a good novel and recommended it to other readers.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

Reviewed by Ambrea

After her mother died, Emily Benedict arrived in Mullaby, North Carolina, with the hope of solving some of the riddles that had plagued her for years—and, more importantly, get to know the grandfather she never knew.  But, as she digs deep into the mysteries of her mother’s adolescence, she discovers that Mullaby is rife with mysteries:  rooms where wallpaper changes to suit a person’s mood, unexplained lights that appear at midnight, and magical cakes—like those of Julia Winterson.

Julia, who has returned to her former hometown, is known and loved for her cakes.  She has a magical touch with flour, butter, milk, eggs, and sugar that seems to enthrall the entire town; however, Julia doesn’t just bake to keep herself and her father’s business afloat:  she bakes to recall the past and, she hopes, bring back a lost love.  She hopes to leave as soon as she can.  Her rocky relationship with Sawyer aside, Julia wants to leave Mullaby—and her hurtful past—behind.

But Mullaby is not what Emily or Julia has come to expect.  Together, they will discover a richness and beauty to Mullaby that they’ve never seen—and a love that they never thought they would find.

I actually picked up The Girl Who Chased the Moon as an audiobook.  It’s one of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to since Hank the Cowdog was considered one of my favorites—back when we still had a cassette tape player in our car—so it’s rather special to me, since it revived and heightened my interest in listening to books again.  Although I’ve listened to other audiobooks that I’ve enjoyed a little more than Sarah Addison Allen’s novel (such as Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Kitchens of the Great Midwest), I was pleasantly surprised by The Girl Who Chased the Moon.

Like both Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen, Allen’s novel is filled with little unexpected joys, everyday magic that jumps out and surprises you.  Like the wallpaper in Emily’s room, or Sawyer’s “sweet sense,” or the secrets of the Mullaby’s most illustrious family, or the frogs that hold a special significance for Emily’s grandfather.  It’s fascinating to see this magical dynamic at work in Mullaby, to see how the town accepts and even celebrates some of its local oddities.

Speaking of oddities, I found I really liked Julia and her magical ability to bake delicious cakes.  More than any other character, maybe even more than Emily, Julia held a special place in my heart.  I liked her for her troubled adolescence and her steely resolve to live her own life, to leave Mullaby behind once she gets her father’s business and her rocky relationship with Sawyer settled.  She’s essentially damaged by her past, by a number of bad years in her youth, but she has managed to heal and reinvent herself and, more importantly, grow into the woman she wishes to be.

I’m not saying Julia isn’t flawed, and I’m not saying she isn’t damaged.  She isn’t perfect, and I admire her for overcoming a number of challenges in her life—and yet she still manages to have hope.  That’s why she continues to bake, why she continues to leave the window open when she’s making her cakes:  she has hope for a better future and hope for reconnecting with someone she thought she’d lost forever.  It’s heart-warming and wonderful.

And I loved it.

I also thought Rebecca Lowman, who narrated the novel, did a splendid job of distinguishing between characters and reviving the cadence of a small North Carolina town.  She helped breathe life into the characters, playing upon the drawl and twang sometimes found in Appalachia, and she did a wonderful job of pacing the story, allowing it to unfold naturally.  While the story was sometimes strange—and, sometimes, I didn’t always enjoy the characters Ms. Lowman played—I found I enjoyed it overall.  It’s a sweet novel with a decent narrator, intriguing (and, occasionally, baffling) characters, and a beautiful little love story thrown into the mix.