Can I get a cover redesign, please?

Ashes of Roses, by Mary Jane Auch (2002)

This book is in serious need of a booktalk. I mean, look at it. That cover is atrocious. I feel like her porcelain eyes are burning into my soul. What middle schooler is going to pick up this book? NOT A ONE. Which is unfortunate, because I think they might really like it.

Margaret “Rose” Nolan is sixteen and is aboard a ship with her entire family, coming to America. When her baby brother is designated as having a troubling eye condition at Ellis Island, for which they deny entry into the country, the family must split up, sending Da Nolan (Da, being the Irish version of “Dad”) and Baby Nolan back to the home country, while the four Nolan women carry on. Soon, however, Ma Nolan can’t take the separation from her husband and baby and carts the girls back to the shipyard. But Rose knows what awaits her back in Ireland: an early loveless marriage and instant motherhood. And this is not a life she wants.

So as the family is preparing to climb back aboard a ship headed for home, Rose puts her foot down and insists on staying in America on her own. Soon, her 12-year-old sister Maureen insists, too, and in desperation, their mother agrees to leave them. But as soon as their mother and youngest sister leave the harbor, Rose and Maureen are stuck with a troubling question: Now what? The rest of the story follows the two sisters as they make their way on their own in bustling New York City in 1911. And for those of you who know your NYC history, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire plays a harrowing role in the climax of this exciting coming-of-age novel.

Luckily, I get to booktalk this book during my upcoming middle school student teaching placement for a group of eighth graders who get extra credit for reading anything related to American history, so it may just be saved from an early death by non-circulation. At least in one library.

A little slow, until the last 50 pages that is: 1.5 stars

From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (2011)

This is a beautiful book. I didn’t know much about it, though, except that it had was getting a bunch of awards and had a gorgeous cover. It lived up to expectations, certainly.

Hà is ten years old, living with her three older brothers and mother in Saigon in 1975. Let me remind you — today, Saigon is known as Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. And what was going on in Vietnam in 1975? Yep.

Needless to say, Hà’s mother is worried for her family’s safety. But if she leaves Vietnam, her husband (who was lost at war) would never be able to find them again. The situation is desperate, though, and soon they have very little choice but to escape with Hà’s uncle’s family, on a boat bound for America. And it’s because of what happens once they hit the American shores that made me fall in love with this book and this girl.

I’ve never read a book that seems to so perfectly capture the young English language learner experience. Of course, I don’t have any personal experience as an ELL, but I AM reading an informational book for educators right now (Getting Started with English Language Learners, by Judie Haynes) and everything Haynes is telling me about ELLs shows up in this text. This either is a sign of authenticity for Lai or for Haynes (I’m not sure which), but because of this, the story definitely rings true. From Hà’s realization that a, an, and thes act like “little metaphors to tell the world whose English is still secondhand”, to her struggle with knowing she used to be smart and now feels incredibly stupid, it made me understand the ELL experience way more than I think Haynes’ book can.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s all written in verse? Beautiful, heart-breaking, hilarious, thoughtful verse?

I want everybody — especially everybody in a school setting where you may interact with students learning English — to read this book. Please.

2.5 stars

“Sad words are just another beauty…”

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (2008)

It took me like a gazillion days to read this novel, because I kept being interrupted by children’s books like Nate the Great and The Golden Compass and (UGH) Nancy Drew, although under normal circumstances, I would have blown right threw it. Because it’s easy to get lost in Cleave’s exquisite prose.

Through the voices of two women, one Nigerian and one English, Cleave tells a story of inexplicable connections and tragic circumstances. A story, that despite its horror, somehow makes you feel a little hopeful.

Sarah is a successful editor of a women’s magazine, mother to a four year old who refuses to take off his Batman costume, and wife to a man she has given up on long ago. Little Bee is a young woman growing up in a violent, warring country, fleeing to a land as foreign to her as sand is to a polar bear. And the only thing she has brought with her is the driver’s license of Sarah’s husband, Andrew.

Little by little, through alternating chapters, we learn how Little Bee came into possession of the license, why Sarah’s missing a finger on her left hand, and what happened to make Charlie insist he is a superhero. We also learn how single days can turn the world upside down, and what it means to save someone. Cleave’s artful way of building sentences, paragraphs, pages made me forget where I was and quite nearly took my breath away.

However. I know I was only there for four months, and I know that I am a very white American, but whenever I read a book set in Africa by a non-African, my hackles get raised. Because it seems that, more often than not, these portrayals end up being ones of horror or pity, and Cleave didn’t disappoint. And when authors (film-makers, journalists) do this, it feeds the world’s misconceptions. Instead of picturing the powerful waterfalls, the colorful fabrics, the beautiful smiles, we see AIDS, civil wars, refugees.

So even though I was blown away by Cleave’s writing and taken in by every character, I couldn’t quite love Little Bee.

Gentle and heart-stopping, 2 stars.

An epic family tale of gender curiosities

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

I’ll be honest, the title for this post is a bit of a stretch. And the buzz around this book is too.

The first part is dead-on. It is an epic tale of the complexities of families that stretches three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. But the gender part of it, the part about the hermaphrodite, the part that was the only thing I’ve ever heard about this book, REALLY ISN’T THAT BIG A DEAL.

Let me start over. Yes. The book begins with the hot topic. In fact, the opening lines make you think you know exactly what the story is going to be about:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petroskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Intrigue.

Mystery.

And gender confusions.

There is definitely intrigue and mystery laced throughout the tale–one of the things I find enchanting about the book– and while the question of gender does come up now and then, it doesn’t really hit till the last few chapters. Really, most of it is about identity and the complications added to self-identification by immigration, family history, and (yes, finally) gender. Cal (once Calliope) is our narrator, and he directs us through his family’s history starting with his Greek grandparents in Smyrna (in Asia-minor…which is approximately Turkey… I think…) who evacuate their burning village to America.

But TWIST: The whole time Cal describes this situation in Smyrna, he refers to brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona…but the readers know that these are also the names of Cal’s paternal grandparents. Hmm….

And then we hear the story of Milton (Lefty and Desdemona’s son) and Tessie (L&D’s cousin’s daughter). Second cousins (Or is it first cousins once removed? I always get those confused). Who fall in love via the clarinet.

And finally we get the story of Calliope. Who finds herself different from other girls… flat-chested, tall, gangly, period-less, hairs on her upper lip, strong desire to touch her best friend’s stomach… And although she doesn’t know this at the time, the reader knows that her genitalia aren’t quite… female.

So yes. The book is about how the main character is a hermaphrodite due to his family’s strange, interrelated sexual history. But is the story really about gender? No. The story is really about how our identities are shaped by the actions and decisions of our parents and grandparents, by the social upheavals of the time, and most of all, by how we choose to define ourselves.

It’s a thick one, and it lost me for a bit in the second half, but stick with it for one final twist near the end.

2 stars

Gracias, Garcias.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez (1992)

I have two copies of this book. Both were bought for probably 50 cents at a used book sale, years apart after I forgot I bought the first one. And for years, they both sat on my shelf. For some reason, a couple weeks ago, I picked one of them up again when I accidentally left my current read at work. And I’m so glad I did.

This novel was right up my alley as far as characterization and voice goes. Only, in this unique and beautiful story, the characterization is more of the Garcia family, rather than the individual family members–Carlos and Laura (parents), and Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia (daughters)–as they leave their native Republica Dominicana for New York in 1960.  By the end, you really feel like you understand the family as a unit; understand, love, and and maybe even wish you were a Garcia yourself.

Alvarez makes some interesting authorial plays, the first one being with time. She splits the Garcia story into three parts, and then traces the story backwards. Part 1, for example, follows the years 1989-1972. I’m still not sure why she chose to write it this way, but I like it. Starting with the first chapter, it’s like meeting new friends and then spending the next 290 pages learning all their past stories until you become bffs.

For the most part, the novel examines the immigrant experience, focusing on one or more Garcias per chapter, sometimes in first, sometimes third person. We watch as Sandi becomes disillusioned with American goodness, as Carla gets tormented by prejudiced schoolboys, as Yolanda returns to the homeland and finds she doesn’t belong anymore now that she’s an American, and as Fifi embraces American attitudes toward sexuality and gets shunned by her father. Similarly, Carlos–a well-known and capable doctor on the island–suffers humiliation when he’s not able to provide for his family in the States–and Laura–daughter of a prominent and influential family–loses herself and her purpose as a new American housewife. They grow, adjust, learn, and develop their lives and identities as Dominican Americans.

Sounds like a downer, huh? Perhaps that’s because I forgot to mention how funny and sweet it is at the same time. And it is just that. With humor and truth, Alvarez paints a unique picture of a typical immigrant family.

2.5 stars. Charming and so different than anything I’ve read before.

A lot of history, not much his story.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

When I peeled back the wrapping paper last December to reveal Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, I was thrilled. Since Mr. Stoia’s English class junior year, when we were required to read her most famous novel, Poisonwood Bible (1998), I had fallen in love with Kingsolver’s precise and captivating character voice, her political motivations, and her deeply researched historical plots and settings. To this day, it is still my very favorite piece of literature.

So as I opened the first page of The Lacuna at the beginning of this month (the semester was just a little too heavy to dive into a 500+ page “for fun” read), I had high hopes.

The story follows the varied path of Harrison Shepherd, starting on a small island of Isla Pixol, Mexico in 1929, at age 13. Recently uprooted from his father’s America, Shepherd lives with his Mexican-born, extravagent mother in the hacienda of her current cavalier. And so begins the life-long journey of being Mexican, American, and neither all at once. The liminality of this novel is not reserved only for Shepherd’s nationality however. On page 29 we get the first interruption of Shepherd’s journal-like narrative by an “Archivist” represented here only by “V.B.”  And although for the most part, the story is told from Shepherd’s voice, we get the occassional commentary by the elusive V.B., which for some reason seemed to offer a sense of credibility to the story in a way that I wasn’t sure if Shepherd was a real historical figure or not until I did some research afterwards.

Shepherd, as a dual citizen, jumps back and forth between his parent nations and is suspiciously closely involved in matters of international news. It is here that Kingsolver’s mastery for accuracy of historical research really shines through however. First Shepherd finds himself as the plaster mixer for famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Later, he runs admist the chaos of the Bonus Army massacre in Washington, D.C., as Gen. MacArthur and Maj. Patton lead the U.S. Army to attack its own veterans with bayonets and adamsite gas. Shepherd then heads back to Mexico, becoming the cook and secretary to Diego Rivera and his also-famous-painter wife, Frida Kahlo. Their home is soon occupied by Lev Davidovich Trotsky, the Boleshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist who was exiled from the Soviet Union by his adversary, Stalin. Shepherd then heads back to America as a transport for a shipment of Kahlo’s paintings, and eventually resides in Asheville, NC, just as America is entering into World War II. Following the war, Shepherd’s past catches up with him, as the Red Scares really start rumbling, and his loyalty to America is called into question.

Pieced together with journal entries, letters, newspaper articles, reviews, and court transcripts, Kingsolver’s newest work sometimes reads as a report rather than a novel. While her knack for making history personal still comes through, what I missed in this novel was her ability of creating spot-on character voices. For me, the characters in this story fell a little flat. I felt more connected with the secondary character “V.B.” than I did with Shepherd, despite him being present on every page. To be honest, I stuck with The Lacuna out of loyalty to the author, rather than connection to the story. Like her others, it certainly peaked my interest about the history, but other than that, it was a rough 507 pages.

1 star