Adam Johnson just moved into the category "I will read anything by this author." These six smart, absorbing, and often very funny stories will break yAdam Johnson just moved into the category "I will read anything by this author." These six smart, absorbing, and often very funny stories will break your heart. I particularly liked "Hurricanes Anonymous," about a man facing the devastation of New Orleans after Katrina and Rita and his own responsibility for his young son, surreptitiously left in his truck by the mother, who, we later learn, is in jail. Nonc, like many of Johnson's male characters, are trying to do the right thing, which means going against all their training, whether that was simply to look out for themselves alone, or to prey on children sexually as they were once preyed upon, or to believe the brainwashing of a totalitarian state that does (North Korea) or does not (East Germany) still exist. Their success is limited, but their effort is heroic.
Oh, and I also love Johnson's sharp attention to social and political ironies. For instance, in "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," the tale of the former warden of a Stasi prison in East Germany, a tour guide's observation that "On the tours, half of them [high school students] are updating their Facebook pages, texting their friends, tweeting and so on. Some YouTube the entire tour but never seem to experience it. To think what the Stasi went through to spy on us. Even they couldn't dream of a world in which citizens voluntarily carried tracking devices, conducted self-surveillance and reported on themselves, morning, noon and night."...more
I laughed aloud almost every page of the first few chapters of this book. The title captures its premise perfectly: Peggy, our protagonist, a lesbianI laughed aloud almost every page of the first few chapters of this book. The title captures its premise perfectly: Peggy, our protagonist, a lesbian confused by having been early labeled a Thespian, has a torrid affair with her gay male poetry teacher, Lee--they are both, in a sense, "mis-laid." Peggy gets pregnant and Lee, raised owning-clas and expected someday to inherit, but currently limited to his earned income as a college professor--marries her, though he has lost interest in her sexually. Well, not completely: she conceives and bears another child, a daughter with whom she eventually runs away to avoid the prospect of being committed to a mental institution when she angers Lee. ("A lesser man might strike his wife. A man who trusts in the rule of law files a formal complaint.")
As Peg and Mickey, renamed Meg and Karen, survive and grow in the backwoods of Virginia, "off the grid" before that phrase became fashionable, and presenting themselves as very light-skinned black people, another important connotation accrues to the title: As so often happens for women, Peg/Meg's life is "mislaid" by her early wife- and motherhood. Nell Zink pulls no punches about the power lines in her story, taking real, snarling aim at sexism under cover of general hilarity.
The rest of the story leads inexorably toward some kind of reunion of the separated siblings and the sundered couple into one confused and utterly likable queer family, despite the well-observed homophobia, racism, and classism--and of course sexism--of their and our world. While the rollick and romp of the opening chapters can't be sustained at the same level throughout, I was virtually never not smiling....more
A lovely premise--two older people in a small town decide to be "sleeping buddies" (my phrase, not Haruf's) and talk at night about their lives. The sA lovely premise--two older people in a small town decide to be "sleeping buddies" (my phrase, not Haruf's) and talk at night about their lives. The story is bare-bones, really almost an outline, and I could have wished for more. But still worth reading to be reminded of Haruf's conviction that at least some people are inherently decent....more
The advantage of "Mansfield Park"'s length is that, unlike with most other Austen novels, I didn't finish it wishing for more. Fanny Price is so passiThe advantage of "Mansfield Park"'s length is that, unlike with most other Austen novels, I didn't finish it wishing for more. Fanny Price is so passive a heroine that Austen really had to work the story around her to make it come out right. Still, when it does, it satisfies....more
As I began reading "Sold," the story of a young Nepali girl from a poor family who is traded into sexual slavery in a Calcutta brothel, I was disappoiAs I began reading "Sold," the story of a young Nepali girl from a poor family who is traded into sexual slavery in a Calcutta brothel, I was disappointed in the language. But the tale itself is so engaging, McCormick's pacing so deliberate, that I soon couldn't put it down. The dramatic irony--it takes a long time for Lakshmi to understand her situation, which the reader would grasp immediately even without the title--focuses attention: when will she understand? What will she decide? How will she resist? And Lakshmi's portrait as a bright, hopeful spirit allows McCormick to reveal horrifying details without sinking under their weight. The story ends with a ray of light and with Lakshmi gaining a firm sense of self as she moves toward it.
The narrative unravels in poems of one to four pages--a choice that had initially attracted me to the book. But unlike Karen Hesse's "Out of the Dust," this story didn't often benefit from the form. With a handful of exceptions, the sections might have been rendered as short prose chapters without great loss. Still, I appreciated that each poem bore a title, sometimes descriptive, sometimes supplying a topic not directly addressed in the lyric, and often capturing a 13-year-old's perspective.
Perhaps the ultimate "issue" book, "Sold" succeeds on many levels....more
Thanks to Willie Hensley, Alaska's Native peoples control more of their original homelands than any other Indian groups in the United States. HensleyThanks to Willie Hensley, Alaska's Native peoples control more of their original homelands than any other Indian groups in the United States. Hensley grew up in the 19940s and 1950s, as Alaska was gearing up for statehood. His family alternated between living in Kotzebue and at "camp," a sod house from which they hunted and fished all summer and fall.
This memoir begins in childhood and picks up speed when Hensley realizes, in the 1960s, that if someone doesn't act, his people will lose all their lands to greedy entrepreneurs and the state. He led the effort that culminated in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Ten years later Hensley has another realization--about the need to revive Native cultures before they disappear entirely.
This book is easy reading, full of humor, and essential to understanding contemporary Native Alaskan lives, from subsistence hunting to the regional and tribal corporations that were set up under ANCSA....more
I made it about halfway through this well-written and well-paced account of the events of 1898ish in the Yukon Valley before I landed in Alaska, and II made it about halfway through this well-written and well-paced account of the events of 1898ish in the Yukon Valley before I landed in Alaska, and I found it had helped orient me to the topography of the area as much as to its history. Berton's research is painstaking and his sense of humor and pathos come to the fore in every chapter. Personally I love his use of the word "demented" to describe the (mostly) men who scrambled toward reported gold--nothing could be more apt. My response to many an example: Wow....more
Loewen's essays are uneven, but this collection grew on me as I read on. Her interests are diverse, from the nitty gritty of parenting young childrenLoewen's essays are uneven, but this collection grew on me as I read on. Her interests are diverse, from the nitty gritty of parenting young children to Russia's history in Alaska to the impact and artifacts of World War II on Kodiak Island. Loewen reaches for good writing, sometimes overreaching ("Fifteen Times over the Bridge" underimpressed me), but her humor and insights carry the day. I especially loved her adaptation of international shipping signals to the concerns of young parents. (Read it--I don't want to give it away.)...more
3.5 stars. This novel, inspired by an incident in Margaret Mead's life, certainly keeps you turning the pages. But it felt a little empty to me in the3.5 stars. This novel, inspired by an incident in Margaret Mead's life, certainly keeps you turning the pages. But it felt a little empty to me in the end, and the structure seems haphazard--enough to keep the story going, but not carefully designed. In the end I probably hoped that it would give me more of Mead--which means probably I should go read Mead herself....more
Thoroughly enjoyable. Possibly 4.5 stars. As the back cover copy reads, "Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism!"
Nimona is a teenage girl, a shapeshifteThoroughly enjoyable. Possibly 4.5 stars. As the back cover copy reads, "Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism!"
Nimona is a teenage girl, a shapeshifter, who attaches herself to the not-so-villainous supervillain Ballister Blackheart. Blackheart plays by rules and doesn't like to kill people. Nimona loves to increase the chaos--and the death toll--around her whenever possible. We get glimpses of both of their backstories as their relationship develops, and there are hints that Nimona's rage (a refreshing quality for a female character to be allowed!) and her preference of magic over science grows out of "experiments" the undefined but evil Institution subjected her to that resulted in her special powers. (In this the character owes something to River Phoenix from the TV show "Firefly" and the movie "Serenity.") It seems science may have a lot to answer for.
I laughed aloud in many places, though I will have to reread before I decide if the ending is truly satisfying. Like other good graphic narratives, "Nimona" is all too easy to gulp--and I did....more
We join book groups to read books we otherwise wouldn't know about or decide to read on our own. Had I not been planning a surprise visit to my formerWe join book groups to read books we otherwise wouldn't know about or decide to read on our own. Had I not been planning a surprise visit to my former book club in Atlanta, I might never have heard of Serena, and if I had, I might not have pursued it beyond the first chapter. A brutal murder of the "just to teach these people a lesson" variety would have scared me off. But then I would never have seen how beautifully and tightly constructed this novel is, tracing the rape of the western North Carolina forests by northern lumber companies during the Depression and hinting at how the relentless greed that capitalism rewards destroys environments both natural and human.
Serena is the new wife of a Bostonian lumber baron named Pemberton, who heretofore has made use of one of the local Appalachian girls and impregnated her. The story is told through the perspectives of Pemberton and of Rachel, the girl, as well as through a chorus of workers. Serena is mad in her ambition, which seems to grow out of a profound need to be the only person (or thing) that matters in Pemberton's life. We do learn much of her backstory; but we see all of their lives play out fully once the action is set in motion.
Rash deliberately structured the novel in five "acts," and it has the feel of a Shakespearean (or, as Rash would have it, Marlovian) tragedy. I went back to reread the first chapter after finishing the novel, and found that, indeed, everything in the novel is present in those first scenes; they are like a tight little bud that opens over time to reveal a monstrous flower....more
An absorbing boys' adventure tale with a difference. Set immediately post-World War II, this story shows boys having to learn to reconcile their hopesAn absorbing boys' adventure tale with a difference. Set immediately post-World War II, this story shows boys having to learn to reconcile their hopes to reality and to recognize the many ways people are both brilliant and deeply hurt....more
3.5 stars. Like Wonder, this book is about a child entering 5th grade with a marked "difference"--in this case, Melody has cerebral palsy and can neit3.5 stars. Like Wonder, this book is about a child entering 5th grade with a marked "difference"--in this case, Melody has cerebral palsy and can neither talk nor coordinate her movements. She has been in special education classes, but this year will begin to be "mainstreamed." While she is severely physically disabled, Melody has no mental impairment and has been trapped without a way to communicate her words, thoughts, ideas until someone helps her get a computer system to help.
The story is told completely in Melody's first-person narrative. While I yearned for a more complex approach, this one has the advantage of never letting the reader escape the knowledge of Melody's humanity for a second as she is mistreated by others and/or unable to help those she loves. That makes it a powerful indictment of our failure to reach for those with disabilities, and our failure to include everyone more generally.
I was distracted throughout by poor copyediting. Mid-sentence tense changes and the like did not serve the book well....more