A reverence for the land is evident in Wendell Berry's first novel, set in the fictional Port William. Narrated by Nathan Coulter, this is a 1930s comA reverence for the land is evident in Wendell Berry's first novel, set in the fictional Port William. Narrated by Nathan Coulter, this is a 1930s coming-of-age story of a boy in a Kentucky family who grow tobacco on a riverside farm. Nathan's father and grandfather are hard men whose lives revolve around working the farm, driving themselves and their family members. The tension between the fathers and sons is broken by Uncle Burley, a relaxed nurturing man, whose vices provide a humorous contrast. There is a strong sense of community in the small town where people often offer support, but they also know everyone's business. The cycle of birth, maturity, and death is portrayed in the Coulter family as well as in the natural world. I enjoyed Wendell Berry's beautiful, thoughtful writing and will be looking to read more of his work in the future.
This is the December Moderator's Choice for the "On the Southern Literary Trail" group....more
I was impressed with Robert Olmstead's spare, lyrical prose in this coming-of-age novel set during the Civil War. Robey Childs is a 14-year-old boy liI was impressed with Robert Olmstead's spare, lyrical prose in this coming-of-age novel set during the Civil War. Robey Childs is a 14-year-old boy living on an isolated farm in the region which is now West Virginia. His mother has a premonition that Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson has died, and that her husband is in danger. She sends her only child on a journey to find his father, and bring him home. A neighboring shopkeeper gives him an experienced coal black horse to ride. The mythical wise horse has great endurance, and seems to sense when Robey might be getting into a dangerous situation. As the boy travels over the mountains, and then north to Gettysburg, he encounters both good and dangerous people. He loses his innocence as he has to steal to survive, and sees the horrors of war. He finds his father seriously wounded on the battlefield.
Robey comforts a group of dying soldiers, including one with phantom pain due to the loss of a limb, and protects them from some nearby animals. "When he returned to the soldier who had endured the phantom pain, he was going to tell him that maybe he was blind because God thought he'd seen enough for one life, but when he arrived at his side he found him to be dead. On his chest was the revolver, a six-shot Remington. It was loaded and he understood that the soldier had left it for him. He also came to understand that he was finally finished with his believing in God."
Robey can't save the dying soldiers, but he honors them by burying the dead. He also helps a girl escape a bad situation. His experiences change him from an innocent youth to a young man who has learned about life during his journey.
I highly recommend Coal Black Horse for both adults and older teens. Olmstead's language is beautiful, and the plot is fast-moving. There is also a reader's guide and an author interview at the back of the book that would be helpful for book groups or class discussions....more
"Fangirl" is a coming of age story about Cath as she starts her first year of university in Nebraska. Cath's more outgoing twin, Wren, is living at a"Fangirl" is a coming of age story about Cath as she starts her first year of university in Nebraska. Cath's more outgoing twin, Wren, is living at a nearby dorm, and has big plans to party and meet the frat guys. Cath is an avid fan of Simon Snow, a literary character similar to Harry Potter, and has many followers who read her fanfiction. She is so caught up with writing Simon Snow fanfiction that she is not moving on with her life. Her quirky roommate, a special guy, and a persistent professor help her see her potential. Cath and Wren's parents also have individual issues that add to the story.
This is a YA book with humorous dialogue that shows the different sides of the freshman college experience. Cath initially seemed extremely isolated and unfriendly to others. This was the first time she had to navigate the world without her twin, so even going to dinner at the cafeteria seemed daunting. The college students were realistic, especially Wren who doesn't know how much alcohol she can handle.
Along with Cath's story, there are sections of the book with Simon Snow's adventures from both the "original author" and from Cath's fanfiction. Although I had heard of fanfiction before, I did not realize how many writers there were online using published authors' characters, and creating their own stories. Since I only read the first Harry Potter book, I can't evaluate how closely the Simon Snow experiences mimic Harry Potter's. The book is fun in many ways--as a coming of age story, as a cute "first love" romance, and as a window into the world of fanfiction....more
Even before I started reading it, I was impressed with the beauty of this book with its thick pages, and full page images of Mexican Loteria cards befEven before I started reading it, I was impressed with the beauty of this book with its thick pages, and full page images of Mexican Loteria cards before each vignette. Loteria is similiar to bingo, except that images are used instead of numbers. The dealer sings a riddle for each image, and the players cover the images. The Loteria card "La Rosa" is on the cover of the book.
Refusing to speak, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo is in a home run by the state after some tragic events. She is looking at her Loteria cards and writing in a journal. Each card seems to spark a memory about her life. She and her Mexican-American family live in Texas a few hours north of the Mexican border. While there were happy times and love in her life, the family members were victims of many violent outbursts and abuse as well.
For the Loteria card "La Botella" (the bottle), Luz writes about her father, "I just wanted to know where it came from, to figure out why he did what he did because it wasn't coming from him. It was coming from that man in the bottle, Don Pedro." This is the story of a complex family situation seen through the eyes of a young girl who still remains devoted to her father. Luz is too young to completely process all the family has gone through, and to understand what is "normal" behavior in a family. Her father himself was a victim of an abusive father.
There are many Spanish phrases throughout the book. Although I only know a few Spanish words, the meanings of many of the phrases could be understood because of the context. But translations of the Spanish words would have been helpful.
The author was a contemporary ballet dancer for seventeen years before turning to a new career in writing. Loteria is his first novel....more
Nomi Nickel is the narrator of this novel set in a rural Mennonite town in Manitoba, Canada. She lives with her religious father Ray since her older sNomi Nickel is the narrator of this novel set in a rural Mennonite town in Manitoba, Canada. She lives with her religious father Ray since her older sister exited the repressive town, followed a few months later by her mother. Nomi is a rebellious sixteen-year-old who tells her story in flashbacks filled with cynical humor. She would love to escape to New York City, but does not want to leave her father alone. She also wonders if she'll burn in hell someday if she totally abandons the Mennonite teachings. Nomi looks at what awaits her if she stays in her hometown--fifty years of working at a chicken processing plant, then the Rest Haven nursing home.
The fictional book is partly based on Mirian Toews' hometown, a Mennonite community in Manitoba. The author writes in a believable 1970s teenage voice in this coming-of-age book that will pull at the heart one minute, and set the reader laughing a few pages later....more
"Orphan Train" weaves together the stories of two girls who have lost their families, one in contemporary times and the other in 1929. They meet when"Orphan Train" weaves together the stories of two girls who have lost their families, one in contemporary times and the other in 1929. They meet when feisty Molly, a teen in Maine's child welfare system, is assigned fifty hours of community service by a judge and arranges to help Vivian clean out her attic. 91-year-old Vivian tells Molly the story of her life as the items in the boxes and trunks dredge up memories of her life as an orphan.
After a tragic fire in her Irish family's New York apartment, Vivian was sent on the orphan train to Minnesota. Some Midwestern families, especially those longing for a baby, genuinely wanted to help the orphans. Others were looking for unpaid help, and picked strong boys to do farm labor and girls to be domestic workers. With very little oversight by the Children's Aid organization, it was easy for their new families to mistreat the orphans. Before she was finally placed with a kind couple, Vivian had two horrific experiences. She thought, "I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary. So I am learning to pretend, to smile and nod, to display empathy I do not feel. I am learning to pass, to look like everyone else, even though I feel broken inside."
Parallels can be seen between the contemporary and the historical experiences of the two orphans. They both faced abandonment, and the challenges of adapting to difficult situations in their new homes. Vivian was able to give Molly warmth, understanding, and acceptance. Molly possessed skills needed to help Vivian resolve issues from her life. Molly's cynical sense of humor added a little lightness to their relationship.
More than two hundred thousand homeless children traveled on the orphan trains between 1854 and 1929, heading from Eastern US cities to the Midwest. The author presented a part of American history that is not well known. Vivian's story of survival is the stronger of the two storylines. Molly's story illustrated that things are far from perfect today, even when there is a social services safety net. I was glad to spend a few evenings in the company of these two resilient women....more
Quentin "Q" Jacobsen has been in love with his neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, since he was a child. The independent, outrageous Margo runs with theQuentin "Q" Jacobsen has been in love with his neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, since he was a child. The independent, outrageous Margo runs with the popular crowd. Quentin and his friends are the geeks. A few weeks before their high school graduation, Margo climbs through Quentin's window and leads him into a crazy night of exacting revenge against her cheating boyfriend and others who have hurt her. Then she disappears, leaving clues for Quentin. He doesn't know if she is suicidal so he feels he must find her.
The book is witty and clever, perfect for older teens. The mystery has lots of action, except for a lull in the middle when the clues don't seem to lead anywhere. The book also has a deeper side with quotes from "Leaves of Grass" and other literature. It has thought-provoking questions about identity. Do we truly know others as real people, or just as an ideal that we put up on a pedestal?
The screenwriting team that worked on John Green's The Fault in Our Stars will be adapting Paper Towns into a movie. Paper Towns has the potential to be made into a popular movie, although it probably will not have as much crossover appeal to adults as The Fault in Our Stars. Paper Towns' setting in Orlando, Florida, where the author spent his childhood, should bring back memories to readers and moviegoers of one of America's favorite vacation spots.
For readers of "The New Yorker": the June 9, 2014 issue has an excellent feature article on John Green....more
Like Jeanette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle, this novel features a self-centered, unstable parent neglecting the children. Fifteen-year-old3.5 stars
Like Jeanette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle, this novel features a self-centered, unstable parent neglecting the children. Fifteen-year-old Liz and twelve-year-old Bean are abandoned in California with some money for chicken pot pies when their mother goes off to "find the magic again." When she does not return, they board a bus for rural Virginia where their Uncle Tinsley lives. It's a big adjustment to be living in a 1970s Southern mill town during the first year of school integration.
The book is narrated by Bean, a strong, spunky girl with a lot of the same spirit as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, which she is studying at school. Bean and Liz get jobs in the household of Jerry Maddox, the town bully and mill manager. After Liz goes through a terrifying incident, the girls decide to seek justice.
Bean was a smart, spirited girl that occasionally seemed too mature for a twelve-year-old, and acted like a child at other times. While much of the plot was expected once the girls were hired by Jerry Maddox, the book still kept my interest. There were some sweet and funny scenes when Liz bonded with some escaped emus near the end of the book. "Both she and the emus wanted to fly--they just didn't have the wings they needed."...more
Frankie is feeling lonely, and isolated in this coming-of-age story: "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. ThisFrankie is feeling lonely, and isolated in this coming-of-age story: "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around doorways, and she was afraid." Her mother died when Frankie was born, her father is distant, and her best friend moved away. Frankie wonders if she might turn into a freak because she is at a gangly, awkward stage. Her wish to belong to a group is so strong that she comes up with the idea of going away with her brother and his bride after their wedding.
The story also shows Carson McCullers' concern for other individuals that are excluded because they are different. Bernice, the African American maid, tells how difficult it is having dark skin. Frankie, who is a tomboy, wishes that people could switch back and forth from being boys to girls. Her cousin, John Henry, wants people to be "half boy and half girl."
A small town is hard on anyone that's different, and feeling excluded. Frankie is fascinated that the soldiers have the opportunity to travel to other places. "The Member of the Wedding" is a heartbreaking coming-of-age novel, but there is hope for a more realistic Frankie by the end of the story....more
The family of Ruth and Lucille have been hit often with deathly tragedies, and the girls are brought up in a house in Idaho built by their grandfatherThe family of Ruth and Lucille have been hit often with deathly tragedies, and the girls are brought up in a house in Idaho built by their grandfather. After their mother's death, they are cared for by their grandmother, then two great aunts, and finally an eccentric aunt named Sylvie. The house itself begins to take shape as a character as well, with descriptions of its uneven floors, its drafty rooms, and a collection of cans, bottles, and newspapers that their unusual aunt never throws away.
The town of Fingerbone is known for its large lake with a long railroad bridge crossing it. The lake has a sad history since a train derailed years ago while crossing the bridge. The lake swallowed up the train and its passengers, including the girls' grandfather. Both the lake and the bridge provide a sense of danger and foreboding.
The author writes very lyrically about the lake, the house, loneliness, loss, and transiency. The book had an ending that I was not expecting, but made sense considering the personalities of Ruth and Sylvie. This is a slow-moving story, to be read for its beautiful prose that borders on the poetic....more
Holden Caulfield is a directionless, rebellious teenager in 1949. He has been kicked out of his third boarding school, and he spends several days in NHolden Caulfield is a directionless, rebellious teenager in 1949. He has been kicked out of his third boarding school, and he spends several days in New York City while he avoids a confrontation with his parents. He has rejected the traditional American Dream, and feels like most people are phonies. He spends a few days drinking, spending money, making phone calls he doesn't complete, and feeling lonely before he has a breakdown. In his narration of the past, Holden is self-centered, cynical, and confused. The only people he trusts are childrn, such as his sister Phoebe, who are innocent and kind.
Although the book was written with 1940s teenage slang, the ideas would be relevant to teenagers today. The book is depressing in many ways, but Holden's sense of humor also comes through. Holden is able to see the lies and phoniness in the adult world. Unfortunately, he is not able to see that he is also creating many of his problems with other people. He has a sweet, caring side that comes out in his relationships with his sister Phoebe, his deceased brother Allie, his friend Jane Gallagher, and with a couple of nuns he meets in a coffee shop. Holden is so overwhelmed, depressed, and directionless that I was left wondering what his fate would be after he finished therapy. The author has written a coming-of-age book that is still relevant in today's world....more
As an only child in Antigua, Annie John had a close relationship with her parents, especially her mother. When she becomes an adolescent, she is at thAs an only child in Antigua, Annie John had a close relationship with her parents, especially her mother. When she becomes an adolescent, she is at the top of her class, but she rebels outside the classroom. She and her mother are in a love/hate relationship in this coming-of-age book. It's a very confusing time emotionally for Annie as she goes through adolescence and breaks away from her parents.
Jamaica Kincaid writes beautifully. I especially enjoyed the local color--the descriptions of the food, the island, the school, and the native healers. Coming-of-age is a universal condition, but this author told it in a very creative way....more
In this coming-of-age book, two lonely boys challenge each other to push the limits along the coast of Western Australia. It starts with contests holdIn this coming-of-age book, two lonely boys challenge each other to push the limits along the coast of Western Australia. It starts with contests holding their breath underwater, then progresses to surfing. Sando, an expert surfer, acts as their mentor as they conquer more difficult waves. The adrenalin just pours out of the pages as the young surfers take bigger risks for the high sensation of riding a perfect wave. "When you make it, when you're still alive and standin' at the end, you get this tingly electric rush. You feel alive, completely awake and in your body. Man, it's like you've felt the hand of God." An injured skier is also featured in the book. When she can no longer do her extreme skiing, she finds an even more dangerous way to get the intense excitement she craves.
"Breath" was narrated by Pikelet, one of the two boys who is now a middle-aged man looking back to his teens. The teen years were a time to learn about challenges, sex, and friendships which can take new directions. Pikelet is now working as a paramedic, a job that also gets the adrenalin moving. In addition to a good story, the book had wonderful settings--the old mill town of Sawyer and the rugged Australian coast with the waves crashing in....more