Review: Vietnamerica, GB Tran

As I mentioned in my review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I am interested in the Vietnam War for very personal reasons. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born and missed the first six months of my life. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can remember the looming presence that war had on my childhood. In the last couple of years, I have been wanting to learn as much about it as I can. I think one reason is that I became very close to a few of my students from Vietnam.

GB Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica caught my attention through a post on Literary Hub about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. The list was compiled by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book The Sympathizer made such a splash in literary circles last year. I found the cover arresting, and I am trying to read more graphic novels, mainly because my students like them, and I want to be able to recommend good ones to them. Tran’s memoir is about his family, who left Vietnam five days before the fall of Saigon. He was born the following year. He felt, in many ways, separated entirely from his Vietnamese heritage and culture, and this book explores that feeling of being the first generation American in a family of immigrants. Tran initially has no interest in his family’s history, but as he notes in the book, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.” This book is Tran’s journey of discovering his family’s history. As he says in his afterword, “Making this book broke my heart.”

VietnamericaTran’s artwork is captivating. He captures the chaotic scenes of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees particularly well. His use of color is deliberate and thoughtful. Scenes in the past are often muted shades of sepia and gray, while the present is generally drawn in brighter colors. I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters at first, but by the end of the book, I had it figured out. Tran also captures well the feeling of the first generation American in a family of immigrants who have different histories, cultural ideals, and personal beliefs. I liked, for instance, his motif of his family’s celebration of Tet, a small way he shows the cultural gap he feels between his parents and himself.

Vietnamerica

One interesting thing I learned from this book, and it is something I have wondered about for many years, is why America (and before America, France and Japan) did not achieve their goals in Vietnam. Tran’s answer, given through his family members, makes a great deal of sense to me. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it, too, but it underscores the importance of being exposed to multiple narratives. As Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are “wrong” but that they are “incomplete,” and when we are only only exposed to a single story about an event—and war often lends itself to “right sides” and “wrong sides” when reality is more complicated—we naturally have a limited understanding of the event.

Vietnamerica

Vietnamerica is not so much a personal memoir as a memoir of a family and Tran’s journey to learning who his parents and grandparents were. It is not a linear story, and it took me a little while to figure out the storylines, but it was worth it. If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, you would probably like Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica

Rating: ★★★★★

Images © GB Tran and used for the purposes of criticism.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017I am counting Vietnamerica as my first book for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge as my “book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Yellow Face

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one I don’t remember reading about 20 years ago, though I must have because I did read all the stories. It’s interesting that I don’t recall it because of the stories I have read so far, I probably enjoyed it the most. A man named Grant Munro shows up to obtain Sherlock Holmes’s services to solve a mystery concerning his wife. Holmes makes a series of impressive deductions about the man’s background and money situation based on the man’s pipe. Munro relates that new neighbors appear to have moved into the cottage across the street from where he lives in Norbury, and he has seen a ghastly face looking out the window. Upon searching the house, he discovers a mysterious portrait of his wife. Further, his wife sneaks out in the middle of the night, and Munro deduces she is visiting the house. Holmes concludes that the occupant of the house must be none other than Mrs. Munro’s first husband, and he must be blackmailing Mrs. Munro. However, once Holmes travels to Norbury at Grant Munro’s request to help Mr. Munro uncover the truth, Holmes discovers he was wrong—the woman is not hiding a first husband at all. The remainder of the review is a tiny bit spoilery.

I have to say, this story surprised me for several reasons. First, it’s refreshing to see Holmes make an incorrect deduction. His deduction makes perfect sense, but he, like many others in the Victorian era, couldn’t have imagined the truth. In addition to the revelation of Holmes’s failure, the ending is a surprise given the times in which the story was written. I would imagine quite a few readers found it shocking, and I know the readers in America would have found it so. I’m not sure if it matters or not, but Mrs. Munro’s first marriage would not have been legal in America in the time at which the story is set (or at least not legal in Georgia, where she lived). Mrs. Munro would not have had an easy time being married to an African-American man at that time. It was not accepted, and Mrs. Munro’s fear regarding the exposure of the truth about her first marriage is quite realistic, though perhaps Mr. Munro’s reaction is less so—it’s the reaction we would want him to have, with our more modern sensibilities, and Watson definitely approves, but it is not the reaction most men in that era would have had.

I see a few references to “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in the BBC’s Sherlock. First, Mary Morstan’s secretiveness through the series as she hides her past as a hired assassin mirrors Mrs. Munro’s secretiveness about her past. Mary’s behavior is not that different from that of Mrs. Munro’s, and both women seem to expect their new marriages will crumble if their husbands find out about their pasts. There is also a yellow happy face painted on the wall in Sherlock’s apartment. In addition, when Mary is killed by Vivian Norbury, Lady Smallwood’s secretary, Sherlock echoes the request made at the end of this story:

“Watson,” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

In the series, Sherlock makes the request not of Watson (who wasn’t in any shape to listen to it), but of Mrs. Hudson:

Sherlock Holmes: If you ever think I’m becoming full of myself, overconfident or cocky, would you just say the word “Norbury” to me, would you?

Mrs. Hudson: Norbury?

Sherlock Holmes: Just that. I’d be very grateful.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the fifth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Red Circle.”

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Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

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Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

I read Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, but going to an English teacher’s conference and seeing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven used in a session presented by one of my friends reminded me I needed to read this book. I finished it this afternoon, so it will be my final book of 2016.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of connected short stories set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexie admits the collection is semi-autobiographical. Several characters make appearances in multiple stories. The main protagonist, Victor Joseph, appears in several of the stories I enjoyed the most, including “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” in which Victor travels with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes and reconnects with Thomas, who had formerly been Victor’s friend. My favorite story in the collection, in fact, centered around Thomas Builds-the-Fire: “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is a magical realist take on the absurd trial in which Thomas is convicted for a 200-year-old “crime.” One exchange in the trial caught my breath, and I had to read it out loud to Steve:

“My name was Qualchan and I had been fighting for our people, for our land. It was horrendous, hiding in the dirt at the very mouth of the Spokane River where my fellow warrior, Moses, found me after he escaped from Colonel’s Wright’s camp. Qualchan, he said to me. You must stay away from Wright’s camp. He means to hang you. But Wright had taken my father hostage and threatened to hang him if I did not come in. Wright promised he would treat me fairly. I believed him and went to the colonel’s camp and was immediately placed in chains. It was then I saw the hangman’s noose and made the fight to escape. My wife also fought beside me with a knife and wounded many soldiers before she was subdued. After I was beaten down, they dragged me to the noose and I was hanged with six other Indians, including Epseal, who had never raised a hand in anger to any white or Indian.”

“Mr. Builds-the Fire,” the judge asked and brought Thomas back to attention. “What point are you trying to make with this story?”

“Well,” Thomas said, “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, located in the valley where I was hanged.” (98-99)

Norma Many Horses also appears in several stories as a wise-beyond-her-years woman who is a skilled dancer, fry bread-maker, and compassionate friend. Junior Polatkin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold “Junior” Spirit of Absolutely True Diary is also the protagonist of several stories and a minor character in others. In fact, Junior’s story “Indian Education” includes many elements that Alexie also incorporated in to Absolutely True Diary.

My favorite stories in the collection, in addition to “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” were “Indian Education,” “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” and “What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but there wasn’t a story in the collection I didn’t like. I am a little confused about the names and in some cases, I can’t tell if characters are recurring or not. For instance, it’s not clear to me if James is the same person as Jimmy Many Horses (Frank Many Horses claimed to be James’s father). The stories are woven together and move back and forth in time and even between reality an alternate reality. They are well-written and work on their own, but in this case, the collection taken as a whole is more than the sum of its individual parts, almost like a series of vignettes, similar to The House on Mango Street. Alexie has been criticized for the motif of alcohol and alcohol abuse that threads through the stories, but he say in his introduction that he was not stereotyping so much as writing what he saw growing up on the reservation. It’s a very sad picture, and it makes me angry all over again at how America has treated (and continues to treat) Native Americans. It’s shameful. Alexie’s voice is so important, and I’m glad he has shared his stories. This is an excellent collection—one of the best short story collections I have read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula

Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Library of Souls, Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls is the third novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. At the end of the previous novel, Hollow City, Jacob Portman has discovered that he not only has the power to see and fight hollowgasts, but he can also control them. He is going to need this power as he travels to the Devil’s Acre, a corrupted loop in the cesspool of Victorian London controlled by wights, to rescue all his peculiar friends and their guardian, Miss Peregrine, along with other ymbrynes.

Emma and Jacob encounter Sharon, who says he can take them to Devil’s Acre, near the docks in London. They set off with Addison the dog for the most dangerous adventure they will yet experience—right into the fortress of the wights itself. The fate of all peculiardom rests on their shoulders.

Library of Souls introduces what I think is probably one of the best secondary characters in the series—the boatman Sharon (think Charon). His dark sense of humor is fun, and he’s interesting to watch—can he be trusted? Jacob and Emma also learn a lot more about the seedier side of peculiardom, including the horrible accident in Siberia (we know it as the Tunguska event) that created hollowgasts, and therefore, also created wights—a scourge peculiars have been hiding from for about 100 years.

As Jacob and Emma learn more, the mythos of peculiardom is fleshed out, and there are ample opportunities for Riggs to continue the series, focusing on new adventures. This particular volume of the series was hard to put down. I think it had perhaps a little bit less of the humor (thought it still retains plenty of funny moments), which makes sense due to the seriousness of the situation in which Jacob and Emma find themselves. I read nearly all of the last half of the book in one big gulp today. It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book so good I didn’t want to put it down.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book made for a great creepy read for the R. I. P. Challenge, and I’m counting it also for the Reading England Challenge, as Devil’s Acre is the worst of Victorian London. However, I am not counting for other challenges. I just bought the book in September, and it hasn’t been on my TBR list long. It’s not exactly historical fiction either—more of a fantasy.

RIP Eleven

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Review: March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

John Lewis’s graphic memoir March was released in three parts. You can read my reviews of March: Book One and March: Book Two. March: Book Three was released just last month, and it concludes Lewis’s story of participating in the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in his involvement with the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. and President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. Woven through the story is also an account of John Lewis’s experiences on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.

March: Book Three picks up Lewis’s story with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Lewis recounts how violence escalated as the movement drew closer to its goal of achieving voting rights for all. He tells of the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, the subject of the film Mississippi Burning. He recalls visiting Africa and meeting Malcolm X. In addition, he recounts his own beating as he crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma.

One of the things I love about this series is it preserves an important episode in American history, told through the voice of one who lived it, in an accessible and engaging way. I personally think the series is indispensable for teaching the Civil Rights Movement to teenagers. The story is interesting enough on its own, but with the hook of the visuals of Nate Powell, which has almost the same immediacy as film, the story really comes alive. Lewis is often called the Conscience of the House. Few have forgotten how he led a sit-in this past summer to attempt to convince the House to vote on gun safety legislation. I can think of few living people I admire more than John Lewis. At the age of 76, he is still actively working—peacefully—to preserve human life and dignity. He is an amazing human being, and his tireless work on behalf of others—all of his life—is just about unparalleled in public service.

The entire March series is a must-read for everyone, especially in these times when some states are engaged in voter suppression tactics. Alabama, for example, recently began enforcing a voter ID law and promptly closed DMV offices in predominantly black communities, making it difficult for African-Americans to obtain the ID’s they need to vote. It’s amazing to read this memoir and think, “these things really happened.” What’s more amazing is that they still do. Black men still have every legitimate reason to fear they will be killed when they are pulled over for minor infractions. Meanwhile, young white men can be caught in the act of rape and get away with very little in the way of repercussions.

In the spirit of John Lewis’s struggle, you owe it to your country and your community to go vote this November. There is a lot at stake in this election. Maybe your first choice of candidate didn’t make it through the primaries. Go vote anyway. Too many people died for your right to vote and to have a say in the way your country is governed, no matter what your background is.

[rating;5/5]

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Review: The Crossover, Kwame Alexander

Our middle school’s summer reading selection this year was Kwame Alexander’s verse novel The Crossover. It’s a book that has been on my radar since an English teacher’s conference I attended last November, but I hadn’t set aside time to read it until this weekend. It’s a very fast read, and I think the students will have enjoyed it. I know I did.

The novel is told from the perspective of middle-school basketball phenom Josh Bell, nicknamed Filthy McNasty by his father, a legendary former basketball player named Chuck Bell. Josh has an equally impressive basketball-playing twin named Jordan, and the two boys attend school where their mother is principal. Things get complicated for Josh when his brother starts dating a girl and his father’s health problems take a serious turn.

When one of my students read this book last year as an independent read, he said it was the best book he had ever read. I’m not going to go that far, but I understand why he said it. This student is not a big reader, and he plays hockey. Finally, he must have thought, here is a book about a boy like me, who loves the game with everything he’s got. I think it also opened up his notion of what poetry could be and do. I always say Kobe Bryant did us English teachers a solid by retiring with a poem. I think what happens too often is that our kids don’t see themselves in the books we select for them, and the boys who passed this book around my classroom last year saw themselves in this book. They also don’t see poetry as something that can be cool or that can speak to them. That’s something to thank Kwame Alexander for.

Some of the poems seem to mimic basketball on the page.

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Other poems are constructed in interesting ways. I am a big fan of poems in two voices. One of my students wrote an excellent one for a multigenre writing project she did on Robin Williams. In one voice, she wrote a monologue he had delivered as part of a comedy routine. In the other voice, she wrote what Williams was thinking as he spoke. When she presented to the class, she asked me to read Williams’s interior monologue while she read the comedy routine. It was an amazing poem, and I think we all felt its power, particularly when read aloud in two voices. Alexander includes a similar kind of poem in this book. It can be read three ways: 1) as one poem, going back and forth; 2) as a second poem on the left, reading vertically; 3) as a third poem on the right, reading vertically. It works each way.

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I can see why this book received so much praise from teachers and librarians as well as winning the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award. Highly recommended to anyone who likes basketball, who likes to dip into children’s books on occasion, or who loves poetry.

Rating: ★★★★★

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