Good Kings Bad Kings is a PEN/BImageellwether prize winning novel from Susan Nussbaum. It won in the category of socially engaged fiction. The story follows a number of characters – different chapters from different points of view tell the story. Nussbaum is able to effectively change tone and voice with each character.

The main setting of the novel is the ILLC – effectively a nursing home for kids and teens with disabilities. This is the place kids are sent when they have no where else to go – they can’t afford private assistance and maybe don’t even have a family or their support.

Nussbaum is a playwright who has been celebrated for her honest voice, and in this, her debut novel, her voice feels exactly that, no matter which character she’s inhabiting. I wasn’t sure how much she’d tug on the heart strings in this novel and was a little wary, but I liked the idea of the multiple points of view, and the characters sounded interesting.

There’s Yessenia, a tough-skinned teen recently out of Juvie – it’s only a few pages in that you realize she’s in a wheelchair. Teddy, another teen living in the ILLC, dreams of having his own place one day. Joanne, a data-entry clerk who starts working at the ILLC – she’s the only disabled adult working in the place. There are other characters, and the ways their lives weave in and out of each other’s are interesting.

This story could easily slip into being sickeningly sweet, glaringly archetypically obvious, or heart-wrenchingly unbearable. But it doesn’t. While it was a criticism of institutions and group homes, it was really about the characters, the teens, the adults, and their own ways of dealing with the world.

ocean end of lane gaiman 2The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the newest book by Neil Gaiman. It came out near the end of June. It was a short story/novella that he developed into a novel-length work for publication. I heard about this book months ago, and got all excited for it… and then I found out he was pre-signing copies. And so I ordered one.

I’m not an autograph hound by any means. When I was kid, I went to a professional tennis tournament and watched Jana Novotná play. She was rightthere! I walked up and said, ‘Hi – you’re great! Can I have your autograph?’ But since I had no paper or pen, I had to ask her for a ball to sign. And oh yeah, did she have a pen too??

She did, and was very nice about it.

So much for being prepared. But anyway. I pre-ordered a pre-signed copy of the book from Porter Books in Cambridge, MA (lots of love for little bookshops). And finally, it came!

It’s short – I read it over the weekend. And it’s simple, maybe deceptively so, but by the end, I did get a little misty-eyed. It’s written for adults, and is written as an adult looking back on himself as a kid. It’s a lovely little taste of a story, but definitely feels like a lot was undeveloped. This could have been a really great novel – instead, it’s a brief meditation on loneliness, being different, being small and scared, and small and powerful.

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From Goodreads:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

 And this is a story NPR did about it. 

When I finished the book, I was thinking that I probably didn’t need to buy it – it was so short, I shouldn’t’ve bothered… But now, I’m thinking it’s good I did, because I’ll really have the chance to go back and read it a couple of times. I have a feeling there’s a lot more to it then I’m going to get out of a single reading.

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I just finished the latest from Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game. He’s got a prequel series started up – the First Formic War series – these books take place waaay before Ender was a spark in his dad’s eye. These books are my literary potato chips – I can’t stop reading them once I start, and they’re really fun, but I feel little gross afterwards. The story of Ender’s Game was soo good, but there’ve been so many sequels and parallel stories that this story is feeling a little tired. But whatever, I’m reading anyway.

A certain Miss 6 who is in my life has recently been bitten by the Junie B. Jones bug (and oh oh, I just discovered there’s a Junie B website).  Junie B. is a sassy and precocious kindergartner who gets into trouble, says adorable things, and annoys and delights the adults around her. Miss 6 can totally relate. Junie B Jones

As a ‘last day of first grade’ present, I ordered for her Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School. This thing is really cute – I wish we had found Junie B. last year, when Miss 6 was just starting 1st grade. This survival guide covers all the things a little guy will need to know when starting school, all told from Junie B.’s point of view. Chapters of the book are: Getting Started, Getting There, Getting Bossed Around, Getting in Trouble, Getting Graded, Getting Smiley.

There are things to read, things to write, things to draw – it should be a fun thing to have over the summer. I was thinking I’d save this book for the start of 2nd grade, but who knows what she’ll be into by then!?!

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ImageI just finished reading Kraken by China Miéville. I’ve read another work by Miéville, and really enjoyed it, but it’s taken me awhile to get back to his stuff. Kraken took me a while to get through – the writing is excellent, but at first I had trouble buying into Miéville’s world of magic. Por ejemplo:

The Londonmancers had been there since Gogmagog and Corineus, since Mithras and the rest. Like their sibling chapters in other psychopoli, the Paristurges (Dane had carefully pronounced it to Billy French-wise, pareetourdzh), the Warsawtarchs, the Berlinmagi, they had always been ostentatiously neutral. That was how they would survive.

It. It. I just. I just don’t sail through passages like that. But still, there is a rhythm to his writing, a flow that works. It took me a while to get halfway through the book, but once I got there, I was pulled along, quicker and quicker, until I made it to the end. This book was frustrating in the beginning, but I stuck with it, and in the end, though I skimmed many, many words just to get past them, it was a rewarding read. It was meaty and chewy and a little slimey. Just like a good kraken should be.

———-

The book is really, under all the gods and magic, an allegory. Or, a ridiculous number of allegories, rolled into one. It explores the idea that belief creates; by believing in something or that something will happen, it comes into existence. It explores morality, putting characters in situations where they have to choose the lesser of some number of evils. It challenges you, the reader, to root, revolvingly, for different characters as the tale progresses, making you explore your own prejudices. There’s more, there’s more – I should have taken notes! But it’s well worth the time you’ll inevitably take with this thing.

 

“Let My People Read” is  blog post by Donalyn Miller. She writes about her frustrations with summer reading lists from schools and says:

Summer is prime time for readers to dive into a series, research a topic that fascinates them, read every book they can find from a favorite author, or explore the stacks at the local library.

I completely agree with the sentiment that children, teens, anyone, should be free to read what they want. Reading levels, lexiles, contemporary=bad & classic=good (or vice versa)… none of that matters. If something engages you (and your brain), makes you think, laugh, feel anything – it’s good.

The best thing, my favorite thing, about the library is its non-restrictive view of books. To me, the library is a place where anyone can choose any book she wants, read it, put down, and take another.  I devour fiction but am pushing myself to read more non-fiction… but that’s my choice. I’ve taken a shine to graphic novels, ordering them from area libraries by the bucketful, because I wanted to (and I wish I had earlier – I’ve got so much catching up to do!). 

I don’t completely agree with Ms Miller about teachers ruining books by dissecting them. I am not one who writes in the margins, but I wish I was. I don’t automatically compare and contrast themes in the books I read, though it might be enlightening. I did enjoy my English classes in high school and college where we did do those things. In those classes, we had a teacher with who we could discuss and dissect books. My favorite was my 10th grade English teacher – we read Shakespeare, Milton, & Chaucer in her class. By reading as a group, stopping and discussing, giving back stories and histories, and side notes, I was able to get so much more out of the literature than I ever would have alone. 

Another teacher wrote a rebuttal-ish post, defending the close reading, group reading, etc, that takes place in schools:

I believe in giving kids ample choice in what they read, but I also believe in the power of shared literary explorations.  To me close reading, whole class book study, and so forth can be a joy not a horror.

To have both experiences with books is my wish for everyone. Think about it: a summer of freedom to enjoy stories, and then be refreshed for a school year of interesting historical and literary discussions… it wouldn’t get much better than that. 

I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately. I recently read Fever by Mary Beth Keane and Mary Coin by Marisa Silver, both new books (released in March of this year). Both books were highly enjoyable – fairly quick reads, but interesting looks at the times in which they are set.

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

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Typhoid Mary was a cook, and passes the sickness along in her cooking. When she’s confronted by doctors who tell her she must stop cooking for people, she just can’t stay away. Cooking for others is what she does best; it’s who she is. What do you do when the one thing that makes you complete can potentially kill someone else? Who are you if you can’t do what you are seemingly born to do?  

Fever is the story of Typhoid Mary. I read about it in the New York Times book review, and it sounded interesting. I’d heard of Typhoid Mary, but didn’t know much else, other than she was someone who got a lot of people sick. The book relies on the facts we know about her life, then imagines the rest, filling in details and conversations and motivations, in a pretty convincing story. The book is not just a portrait of a woman who can’t understand why she’s being picked on by doctors, it’s about self-delusion, denial and taking responsibility for your own actions.

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

Recognize the picture on the book cover? It’s an iconic image of depression-era America, taken by Dorothea Lange, of a migrant worker and her children in the mid-1930s.

Marisa Silver has created a wonderfully powerful story surrounding this image – from the present day descendant of the owner of the farm this woman worked, to the woman who took the photograph, to the migrant worker, Mary Coin.

Silver has imagined their lives, both separately – each character fully drawn in its own right – and intertwined – she connects the stories cleverly.

I also read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I have a B&W postcard with this picture printed on it, from a collection of iconic images of America. I put them all up on a wall in an apartment I used to have – it was a cool wall o’ images; it made me happy whenever I looked it at. So, when I saw this picture was used on a book jacket, despite its being in color, I felt that I just HAD to read it. I didn’t necessarily like the cover image, or the font the title was in…

Actually, for both of these books, I wouldn’t have picked them up because of the cover art – it just doesn’t appeal to me. If it weren’t for reading about them in the Book Review, I wouldn’t have been interested in them. Luckily for me, I did read the reviews and was intrigued enough to give them each a chance. I’m glad I did – I really enjoyed both of these novels, for their characters and the stories woven around them.

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