March: Newbery Winners

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

This month I read Newbery award winning books that I really should have read years ago- this is especially true with this first book. Everyone I knew by the time of middle school had read and loved it, but I never was really interested in reading The Giver. The first remarkable thing about The Giver is how its themes seem to run throughout all the great books that have been part of this great revival in Children’s literature- whether its the religious allusions to the garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit- also seen in The Amber Spyglass, by Phillip Pullman; or the mentor relationship with the Giver, akin the Dumbledore and his pensieve in Harry Potter. Even adult classics are reminiscent of The Giver (or visa versa) such as 1984, or especially Brave New World.

In case you don’t know The Giver tells of a society in the future that has solved all the ills of the world: famine, war, disease. But to do this takes extreme measures, and also means that the people have no concept of all the things that make us truly happy along with the things that cause pain and heartache- All except for the Reciever of Memoires who has to carry the burden of the memories of all the good and bad of earlier times to be able to guide the leaders of the society. When our main character becomes the new Receiver of Memories, the old one becomes “The Giver” who pours the memories into him. And so begins their relationship as the the Giver teaches him about the strange emotions and experiences their society has cast off.

When I was a child, and everyone was reading this book, I thought I did not like futuristic stories (and to this day I’m a bit wary of most Sci Fi). But this story, while set in the future, is beautiful in its simplicity. This story is so simple and pure its fable. It suggests a tale that has been told and will (should) be told for centuries.

Goodreads rating:*****

Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool

Now here is a beautiful story about a girl finding a place to belong in the world, and learning about her beloved, yet mysterious and rambling father. This novel is the story of the town of Manifest- a town with a past- from the point of view of a young girl growing up in the the 1930s, as well as history of the town from the time during WWI, told to her by the town diviner. With it’s varying viewpoints and colorful cast of characters it’s like  Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe for kids.

And at the end- even though part of the conclusion you can see coming from way on down the line, Vanderpool still leaves room for one surprising connection and tugs at your heartstrings. This is the book that won the Newbery for last year (2010) and took booksellers and readers by surprise. One neat fact is that the author draws a lot on her grandparents’ histories for the story, and still is a local Kansan (where the story is set).

Goodreads rating:*****

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo

Part of the joy of reading Kate DiCamillo is her fanciful yet sophisticated voice- never talking down to her young readers- beckoning to them and creating a general atmosphere of wonder- perfect for this quaint fairy tale of a story.

In The Tale of Despereaux the eponymous tiny mouse acquires a love of reading fairy tales found in the library of the castle he inhabits (instead of munching on their pages like any other self-respecting mouse); a rat raised in darkness yearns for the light (and delicious soup) only to be rebuffed with tragic results; a poor unloved girl dreams of one day becoming a princess; and the princess grieves for her lost mother. DiCamillo tenderly captures a whole range of this human emotion: longing (and perhaps, as the title suggests, desperation) in a simple and true way- perfect for her young audience.

Goodreads rating****

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

With A Wrinkle in Time we have the gold standard for the Newbery award as well as Science Fiction for children. Meg is a frumpy girl, out of step with the rest of the kids her age, yet she finds herself embarking on an adventure with her younger brother and a cute boy in tow (what more could a girl want?!) and soon she is able to be heroic and stand up IT- an amazing personification of evil (which, in its quest to make everyone the exactly alike is reminiscent of The Giver read earlier in the month). This was my mother’s favorite book as a girl growing up in the 60s and 70s. She always insisted I should read it although I never did. And now I can see whey my mother- a bookish frumpy little Catholic girl loved this book so.

Make no mistake, A Wrinkle in Time is deeply rooted in religion. For all its sophistication and scientific jargon- its a book about good vs. evil… and of course the power of love. The only big qualm I had with the book (other than the fact that at the end of the day, it’s just not my style) is that- while L’Engle doesn’t call her subsequent follow-up books “sequels” but instead “companion books”- my feeling is that this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the book doesn’t really stand on its own

Goodreads rating****

Also read this month: These Dreams of you, by Steve Erickson and an unpublished manuscript by Kate Southwood.

Next Month’s theme: “Classics”. I’ll be going back to yet more books I shamefully haven’t read. First up is Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

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The Galley Way: Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood Street

Robby Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood Street, by Peter Abrahams

In this clever little story, Robbie Forester is a Brooklyn Middle Schooler who, after coming in possession of a lost charm  bracelet, finds that she begins to experience superpowers- but only periodically, only when there is some justice that need to be righted. Soon these powers (that seem to have a mind of their own) lead her to fleecing the pockets of evil-doers and billionaires alike. Of course Robbie passes on the dough to the needy: Brooklyn residents who are being pushed out by a greedy landlord (who coincidentally is the biggest client of the law firm Robbie’s mother works for).

And let’s talk about the parents- here we have two intelligent and interesting parents. Robbie’s father is a novelist of some acclaim who is hard at work on a new book about…. well he’s not sure what, but it’s sure to be brilliant. Abrams’ references to Robbie’s dad are endearingly funny, partly because Robbie doesn’t know what he’s on about half the time (such as when he explains to her about his experiemental novel told  first from the conscious mind, and secondly from the subconscious called On/ Off. Robbie’s mother is also compelling, and believeably portrayed as the more serious grown up facing a real world dilemma of working for a kinda shady law firm.

But what would our Robin Hood be without her Merry Men?

Well, soon after Robbie gets her powers she comes in contact with a few other kids, which, thanks to some literal sparks, she realizes that  and they too have magical powers- no doubt due to the mysterious charm bracelet. Together they form the ‘outlaws’ sworn to stop injustice everywhere, and the aforementioned greedy billionaire landlord in particular.

Not to give too much away, but by the end of the story we have four young outlaws in possession of different (if spotty) supernatural powers- a set-up just begging too be turned into a series. In this modern take on the all-too familiar Robin Hood tale, Peter Abrahams creates a truly charming heroine who unexpectedly begins on an adventure of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. So I’m sure we’ll hear more from Abrahams who has proved that his work for Young Readers is just as compelling as their adult counterparts.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating:****

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The Galley Way: Other Waters

Other Waters, by Eleni Gage

In Eleni Gage’s Other Waters we meet Maya, a high achieving Indian- American woman living in New York City. On the surface her life is ideal: she has a family who loves her, a successful career in psychiatry, and a sweet boyfriend. But after her beloved Grandmother passes away, and her family is cursed by a bitter servant back in India, things begin to fall apart. Her boyfriend can no longer stand Maya keeping him a secret from her family simply because he is not Indian, she is the subject of a frivolous malpractice law suit, and each member of Maya’s family begins to fall victim to some sort of calamity.

Maya hopes that a trip back to India with her best friend, to attend a cousin’s wedding, will give her an opportunity to break the curse and help her find happiness that seems to be eluding her.

Other Waters– evocative of Eat, Pray, Love- has three definite acts. But these sections are amazingly disparate, which make the novel ever-so disjointed and unfocused. It’s part Jhumpa Lahiri-esque portrayal of life as an ABCD (American-born Confused Desi), part travelogue, and part Sex in the City style tales of boyfriend drama.

For me, what starts off seeming like a serious and literary study of an Indian American family, finished feeling like more like high-class chick-lit (only with the romantic interest being decidedly uninteresting).

Don’t get me wrong though- I don’t mean this as an insult, as I enjoy chick-lit as much as anyone. It’s just that the most enjoyable passages are from the middle section novel- Maya’s experiences traveling through India. It is here that Gage is able to let the story twist and turn in unexpected and delightful ways, and unfortunately (but perhaps, realistically) it is when Maya returns to New York that we find her in a bit of a rut again.

And, while her relationship towards the end of the novel is frustrating- this is mainly due to the fact that Gage successfully draws the reader to Maya. You truly want the best for her, and the person Maya is in a relationship with is clearly wrong for her. The story does leave off on a high note, with one last pleasant and unexpected turn for Maya- which nicely rounds out this entertaining novel.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating:***

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The Galley Way: The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It, by Charles Duhigg

In this entertaining and scientific look at habits, Duhigg answers once and for all how our habits are made, how they can be broken, and- most interestingly- the power of habits in our lives. While Duhigg uses many scientific studies to prove his point, the book is not dense or overly cerebral, even someone like me (who could barely pass high school physics) can easily keep up.

While Duhigg’s insights about habits don’t seem to be ground-breaking (oftentimes they are things that we have already suspected or could be taken as common wisdom, such as: to break a bad habit you must replace it with a new habit), the joy of reading this book comes with the many real world examples that are provided.

One of my favorite anecdotes is how Coach Tony Dungy of Superbowl fame (so famous even I knew who he was!) used habits to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers go from zero to hero in just a few years. Instead of creating dozens of complex plays to out-fox the other teams, Dungy had his players memorize just a few- and then had them practice the plays over and over and over again until their actions on the field were automatic habits that could be carried out faster than other teams. For fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, this book is another great look at these powerful forces in our lives, and the greater society, that we somehow constantly overlook.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating: ****

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The Galley Way: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

In her debut novel, Pulitzer prize winning reporter, Katherine Boo, takes the reader on the tour of one of Mumbai’s numerous slums where we encounter a cast of characters- ranging from the lowliest trash pickers, to a up-and-coming family of trash sorters, to a duplicitous and politically-minded slumlord and her lovely college-attending daughter.

At its best, Beautiful Forevers calls to mind Slumdog Millionaire and Shantaram in its ability take an unflinching look at life in a Mumbai slum. Boo is able to portray this ramshackle community without resorting to caricatures of it’s citizens as either pathetic victims or as a fearful violent mass.

The characters in the novel are nothing if not complex, and their dramas, daily concerns, and ambitions closely mirror those of Mumbai’s “Over City”. In fact, the main action of the story centers around how the slum dwellers carry on and put down roots despite their temporary communities, and attempt to better themselves and take part in the recently swelling Indian economy.

The true beauty of the novel is in Boo’s obvious affection for the resilience and amazing capability her characters have for survival. The story is at times heartbreaking, and often dryly humorous (especially with the portrayal of a Kafkaesque, corruption-driven under-bureaucracy), but at it’s core it is hopeful- in the way that one has to be when hope is all that is left to help a person carry on.

Note: I received this book as a giveaway from Shelfawareness

Goodreads rating:****

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February: In Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I have been meaning to read this book for a long time, and in the end I couldn’t have had a better book to kick off “In Translation” month than The Elegance of the Hedgehog, namely because the this month’s theme serves partly to answer the question: is reading a book in translation different than reading it in its original language? That is to say, Do we shy away from reading works in translation for a good reason (and not just laziness)- because once something has been translated, the language of the work loses it’s ability to delight and amaze, and instead just becomes a workman-like storytelling?

Thankfully, Alison Anderson’s beautiful translation lays to rest any of those concerns. Not only is The Elegance of the Hedgehog a delightful and charming story with engrossing characters, interesting philosophical notions, and a pretty nifty conceit; but most importantly Barbery’s original prose is given it’s full due and the novel reads just as eloquently and any originally written in English. This is especially important for a story where characters often mull over the intracacies of language, grammar, and literature in general.

This book is the total package: with it’s beautiful language and philosophical ramblings, it still manages to have heart, and be funny and sarcastic. Most importantly it’s the sort of book that you want to live inside. For me, reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog was like being introduced to an old friend.

“That’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult; the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe”

Goodreads rating:*****

The Little Prince, by Andre de Saint Expery

Translated from the French by Richard Howard

Again, with The Little Prince, we have  book that I should have read a long time ago. It’s a lovely little tale of an aviator, stranded in the Sahara, who befriends a little prince that hails from a distant asteroid. The main appeal of the story comes from de Saint Epery’s poking fun at adults. When the little prince recounts for the narrator all the adults he encountered before visiting earth, we are treated to a parade of human folly, from workaholics to alcoholics. Who doesn’t love a story that points out that for all our pretensions, adults are amazingly stupid compared to children?

As far as this being a work in translation, The preface of this edition of The Little Prince is given over to the translator, Richard Howard’s, ideas about his duty as translator, and specifically the need for this updated version that, with the changing times, is truer to the French version. Since the story has such simple and straight-forward language, the translation seemed just right. As charming as The Little Prince is, at times the story comes off as a bit bizarre. So our little prince is in love with a flower and lives on an asteroid by himself… ? I suppose we of course are meant to read this all as allegorical and not look to deeply into the technicalities and plot holes of the story. (How did the little prince get to earth, who are his parents!?) Although I guess many works of children’s literature are oftentimes a bit strange or flimsy when examined too closely.

“Anything essential is invisible to they eyes.”

Goodreads rating:***

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

Here we have yet another book where bizarre is an apt description. One Hundred Years of Solitude spans the generations of the virile Buendia family and the rise and fall of the city they helped create- Macondo. It’s a sweeping epic tale, that at the same time never strays far from the, at times grand, at times crumbling, ancestral home (which fits nicely with the title). Thanks to Marquez’s eloquently dense, yet also at times breezy language, this book was truly a joy to read.

And what to say of the plot and characters? Certain characters such as Ursula Iguaran Buendia, and Jose Arcadio Buendia, the matriarch and patriarch of the clan, are incredibly moving and sympathtic. As the story goes on each generation echoes the earlier characters and- as is commented on in the book- the Buendias are almost fated or cursed to repeat certain roles in life- as their fortunes rise and fall with that of Macondo itself. Because of this, many of the later characters take on a sort of carbon copy persona, becoming archetypes in the mold of either an Aureliano or a Jose Arcadio.

Similarly their stories, even with a twisted and contorted genealogy, often have a 2-dimensional, fairy tale feel. Certain characters, such as Jose Arcadio and Aureliano Segundo, take on amazing larger than life characteristics, and the family has an amazing capacity for sexual desire (especially with the wrong people). Since it’s a novel so bursting with detail that Marquez gets away with these off-putting couplings; it’s a novel about love, ghosts, sex, hate, family, remorse, and, of course, destruction and decay. This all lends itself the general tone of the novel- a fine example of magical realism- One Hundred Years of Solitude ultimately serves as a vast Amazonian fable- a Latin American 1,001 Arabian Nights.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Goodreads rating:****

Lovers, by Daniel Arsand

Translated from the French by Howard Curtis

Yet again this month we have a book that I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Lovers is a slim volume set in 18th century France, that tells the of a love affair between Balthazar, a young nobleman, and Sebastien, a beautiful and magical adolescent. Theirs is an all-encompassing love that refuses to be cowed by society’s expectations, class differences, or even Sebastien’s wandering ways.

Ultimately of course it leads to both of their ruin. Because of his infatuation, Balthazar neglects his obligation to the King and refuses to dutifully make an appearance at Versailles that could dispel rumors about him. This leads to his ultimate destruction and sends Sebastien off on a trajectory that has equally fatal results.

Interestingly, while the fact that they are “buggers” is abhorred by Sebastien’s parents, and a catalyst for the damning rumors that lead to Balthazar’s downfall, the two lovers are not explicitly persecuted for being gay. It is more that the fact that their love is so engrossing that it causes them to abandon responsibilities and reason that leads to their destruction. There seems to be the possibility that if Balthazar had only gone to Versailles and won the favor of the King the court would have turned and blind eye to their romance. Arsand is able to pack quite a story into such a short book; but the story, such as it is, is full of heartbreak. Lovers is a very beautifully written, yet sad novella.

“We are different he and I, why deny it? His is the infidelity, mine the jealousy, ours the undeniable fact of our love.”

Goodreads rating:***

Also read this month: 419, by Will Ferguson

Next Month’s theme: “Newberys”. I’ll be going back to children’s classics and taking a look at some Newbery winners I, shamefuly, haven’t read. First up will The Giver, by Lois Lowry.

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The Galley Way: Shards

Shards, by Ismet Prcic

In beginning a description of Ismet Prcic’s (pronounced Per-Sick) debut novel “Shards” I first must mention that novel is filled with stories, scenes, and characters that are truly enjoyable to read and range from heartbreaking to humorous. But what really makes the book stand apart was Prcic’s fluid nature of storytelling that made the novel *novel* for me.

The bulk of the Story is set in 1990’s Bosnia, where Prcic comes of age the war ravaged city of Tuzla. It is in Bosnia that his stories are the most common and can resonate with any Young Adult. While the war rages, Ismet (main character of the same name of our author) and his friends carry on and live like most teenage boys caught up in girls, drugs, and under the sway of a charismatic theater director.

The main action of the story centers around Ismet’s flight from Bosnia to be sponsored by his uncle in California, but it is when he arrives in California that Ismet begins to come unglued, suffering from insomnia, alcoholism, memories from the war, and beginning to fuse his memories and identity with Mustafa- a young man (or figment of Ismet’s imagination?) that fought in the war and serves as Ismet’s mirror image. Prcic alternates between Mustafa’s and Ismet’s story and the reader is left uncertain what is ‘real’ and what is fiction- where Mustafa ends and Ismet begins.

Not only was it refreshing to read about a time an place that I’m largely unfamiliar with- but Prcic’s style plays fast and loose with the conventions of story telling. Is it a memoir or a novel? Will the real Ismet Prcic please stand up? The story delightfully sends you ’round the bend with Mustafa’s and Ismets shared and diverging histories- and strangely was reminiscent of the main character(s) of ‘Fight Club’- complete with a killer ending.

Note: This is a Goodread First Read

Goodreads rating: *****

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