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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.

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Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Amor fati is a notion that comes up again and again in Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life After Life. It’s the idea of loving one’s fate, of learning who one is, knowing yourself, and embracing your self, your destiny, for better or worse. The entire novel, really, is about that very idea, and it’s exemplified through the tales told in each chapter.

When I first heard Kate Atkinson had a new book, I  was excited, had to read it!  … But then I read on Goodreads what it was about, and the description of it sounded like something I wouldn’t like at all:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways.

Oh. That sounds awful.

But I got the book anyway, from the library (placed a hold and it came in really quickly for me – love the LION libraries!), and jumped in. The thing about Kate Atkinson is, her story-telling capabilities are so fully developed, her words are so full of life and her almost tactile phrasings clamber off the page. Her words are delicious, her characters are people I feel like I know or want to know. So, despite my doubts about that description, I truly enjoyed the book. I feel more grounded and appreciative of the people in my life, the choices I’ve made, the good and bad – it all serves to make me, me.

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I first read Kate Atkinson right after my daughter was born. I’d sit and rock and read, and the little babe would sleep in my arms. They were peaceful, lovely moments, and Kate Atkinson’s book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was a perfect accompaniment to them.

The first line in the book is “I exist!” Reading that as I gazed down at my newborn forged such a strong feeling of friendly co-conspiracy with the author, I felt like I had a wise, all-knowing-but-full-of-faults friend sitting with me. Atkinson did not fail me in any of her subsequent books, and with this latest one, she underscores her understanding of and love for humans, with all their strengths and all their weaknesses.

2012 brought us the movie “Cloud Atlas,” based on the book of the same name. I don’t know much about it, but I was sent this link, to make me laugh: http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/ways-in-which-the-movie-cloud-atlas-has-changed-my-life

cloud-atlas-low_smallIt inspired me to then read Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas, which my library had (had it been out, I probably would have forgotten about it). I also wanted to read it to spite Cloud Atlas some. I just don’t have any interest in the book or the movie. I think its articlelessness is kind of pretentious, and maybe, just maybe, it seems a little daunting.

This one, The, is set in Alaska during WWII and years later, and goes back and forth, the past being related as a confessional. During WWII, the Japanese had started sending hot air balloon bombs overseas, to land and explode on American soil. This is a story about a man in the bomb squad who had to chase these balloons, and deal with a superior who was being chased by personal demons, and to learn to listen to a local shaman, whose beliefs were chasing his own. And there’s a woman they’re all chasing, in different ways.

Reading the Amazon reviews, you can see all the people who ordered the book thinking it was the one the movie was based on, only to find out it wasn’t… and it still got lots of positive reviews. It’s a really well-written story, interesting and haunting. There was one anecdote the shaman related about a man and wife whose child died and was cremated before they could mourn her according to their beliefs. The shaman helped the parents feel their child in the falling rain, and helped them say goodbye. This passage was simply told, and very moving.

It’s a work of historical fiction, but ultimately a story about the various relationships that get us through our lives, and how each one can teach us about ourselves, if only we let them.

Q: What have you been doing this summer?

A:

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Yup. Me too.

Someone wrote that on our paper display in the library where we ask “What are you reading these summer nights?”

I’m totally making that into a shirt. … Because it is true – I have been reading like a nerd all summer long, been plowing through books of all kinds.

I recently got back from a trip to South Florida… visited with friends, family, and most satisfyingly, the pool. In the 9 days I was on vacation, I was able to finish three books (and start a fourth). I do read fast, but they were also fairly short. Their length and interest-keeping ability was perfect for some distract-me-from-the-bumps-on-the-plane reading, some back-from-the-pool-and-totally-exhausted reading, and some it’s-vacation-so-I’ll-read-before-breakfast-at-10am reading.

I started After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh on the plane. It’s a collection of nine short stories that take place in the very near future. Each one explores the way we live after some major calamitous event occurs. Some events are more far-fetched than others (my eyes tend to glaze over when I read the word “zombie”), but it’s not the events themselves that are the focus so much – it’s the human reaction to them, how we adapt and continue, that is interesting . McHugh’s characters are undeniably sympathetic and human; they just happen to be in new and strange circumstances and settings. I couldn’t tell you what every story was about off the top of my head, but reviewing the contents of the book brings back memories from each story, feelings that stuck with me.

Once I finished Apocalypse, I picked up Sherman Alexie’s Flight. This story is about a lost and angry teenager called Zits, who is half white, half native American. He’s an orphan who has seen too many foster homes. He meets another foster kid, and they become good friends – the new guy helps Zits escape from a bad foster home, then puts him up in his place, an abandoned space-cum-shelter. He teaches Zits how to shoot guns and how to be angry. One day, Zits finds himself in a bank, ready to shoot into a crowd of people, just because. He’s ready to pull the trigger, cutting down innocent people waiting in line…

He does – and is instantly transported into the past – he wakes up in the body of an FBI agent who is about to do some dirty dealing with native Americans  in the 70’s, something which resulted in a lot of innocent Americans being killed. He wakes up in a few other people’s bodies, across various time periods and experiencing different points of view. By the end of this short novel, he realizes a lot of things about himself and life. The end seems a bit neat and easy, but the writing is sharp and the message heartfelt. Coincidentally, I was reading this book the same week of the Aurora movie theater shootings, throwing the events in the book and in real life into sharper relief. And, the review of this book in the NY Times was written a few years ago, shortly after the shootings in Virginia Tech. It seems eerie, the similarities of time, but probably really just a reflection how much violence takes place all the time.

The last book of the bunch was Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan. It was a quick read about girls in adolescence. It promised to tell parents how to navigate this treacherous land of female adolescence in this day and age. Each chapter covered a different topic relevant to girlhood: diaries, dating, menstruation, etc. “Covered” is putting it lightly, though; critics have not been impressed:

Jessica Bennet reviewed the book at the Daily Beast; Elizabeth Day weighed in at the Guardian;  and Emma Gilbey Keller gave her two cents at the New York Times.

I thought the book was OK, but in reading the criticisms, I see what they’re getting at. The main thing the book does is to highlight some pivotal moments in female adolescence, and identify some points where parents can pay attention and try not to screw their daughters up too much. Too bad the author only has sons, though – she may have had some real insight if she had had some, well, real insight.

On the way home from my trip, I started Emerald City, a book of short stories by Jennifer Egan. I’ve read everything else of hers and I really like her as an author. Her characters are all flawed, but sympathetic, because really, aren’t we all flawed? It’s how we find our own redemption that matters.  Her tales are a mix of poignant moments and everyday life. Two thumbs up.

Since then, I’ve read:


The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics.
  An interesting history of the comics that began the comic book craze, it covers the time when comics were first printed in book format and goes up to the mid-fifties, when the Comics Code  was adopted as a way for comics publishers to self-police. Yeah, that happened.

Monster,  by Walter Dean Myers – a teen novel with an accused criminal as the main character. He’s 16 and awaiting trial. The book is written as if he were writing a screenplay about the trial – the kid is really interested in movies & movie-making. As the story unfolds, you can’t help rooting for this young man, who is jailed and in hell. He’s scared, although not necessarily innocent. You wonder where he got lost along the way, and hope to hell your kid isn’t going to end up in the same place.

I read Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. If you like Michael Crichton, you may like this novel. It’s a little thriller, a little biological mystery, a little spooky, too. It’s a pretty fast read, and takes place in the Natural History Museum of NY. Murders happen, chase scenes and conspiracies take place. It’s fun and was the basis for the 1997 movie of the same name.

Made it through both the regular printed novel and the graphic novel (GN)  version of the prequel to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game called Formic Wars: Burning of the Earth. It’s co-authored by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston, the GN is illustrated by Giancarlo Caracuzzo. I didn’t want to like the GN, so I read the novelized version of the graphic novel first – it was good. Better than I had expected (I Ioved Ender’s Game). So then I gave the GN a shot – and once I thought, Maybe I’ll like this, I actually did.

I recently finished The City & The City by China Miéville. This was really good, better than I expected, rich and gripping, actually. It’s science-ish fiction, slightly metaphysical, but really it’s a look at the boundary lines that separate two city-states in a made-up place in Eastern Europe. The two cities, really two separate countries, went through a split at some point, and the geography was divided in two, the people not allowed to see the other country’s citizens, buildings, cars, etc. Basically, anything that is in country A cannot be seen or touched by those in country B. A girl is murdered, though, and the investigation leads to evidence in both countries, plus a question of conspiracy involving a mythical third country. It’s crazy. But it’s good, and if you like detective novels at all, you’ll love the main character. This book is a detective story, it’s social commentary, it’s light criticism of academia – it’s rich and deep and grabs you from the start.

Finally, I just finished The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I really liked the Bourne movies, and plan to see the newest “Legacy” movie that’s out now, but I wanted to get a little refresher and thought I’d give the books a try. I was not disappointed. The movie took out a plot that makes up most of the book – in it, an assassin called Carlos is hunting Jason Bourne in addition to the US government. It’s a fun read, though I get a little lost in the wordy descriptions of the fight scenes. Either way, Matt Damon was good in the book, too.

Phew. That’s it so far. So, yeah… that’s me, I’m just reading.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s also the book I chose to give out on World Book Night, which is today/tonight, April 23.

World Book Night is something I only found out about a couple of months ago, and I signed up to be a Giver. I picked a book title, and was sent 20 special copies of it. These titles are to be handed out today to people who are light or non-readers. We’re supposed to choose a book we loved, so that we can hand it to someone and say: Here, read this, I loved it and hope you do too.

And so, today, tonight, I’ll go out and give these copies away to whoever will take one (I also gave some copies to coworkers to help hand out, too).

In order to be able to talk this book up, I started to re-read it. I knew I liked it but I couldn’t remember exactly why.

I do now, though. As the New York Times put it, it’s “a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus.”

I agree with that. The story itself is cool, but the writing is, too. Mr. Diaz writes like you’d imagine an energetic storyteller would talk – for one chapter. Then he switches voices, telling the story from another character’s point-of-view. He sprinkles in Dominican slang words throughout the text, and you don’t always know exactly what the word means, but you still get it.

I was looking up a couple of the words, just to get an exact meaning, and found this site, which provides definitions and annotations on things said/written in the book. I like some of the things on here – the annotations cover comic book character descriptions, in case you’re not familiar with Galactus, as well as historical figures and events, and translations. It’s a handy resource to have as you read the book, should you want to really get into the nitty gritty. And it’s worth it – there’s a lot there. But I say, save that for the second reading. Get through it once and enjoy the words, the story, the language.

There’s something to enjoying the feeling of a foreign word, even if you don’t know exactly what it means, maybe because you don’t know exactly what it means. Much of the joy of reading a book is that you can imagine whatever you can – for the characters, how they sound, what they look like, what they mean. Having words that you don’t know the meaning of here and there doesn’t mean you won’t get the idea, and they allow you to focus more on the idea of the sentence, to put a little bit of your own meaning into it. That allows you to make the book yours.

I think that’s the definition of good literature – on one level, the story is good, told well, and characters are fully-developed. You know these people. On another level, it leaves enough OUT of the story, some part of it, that you can put yourself into it, you-at-this-moment fill the holes, create the final story in your head. And it’s those works of writing that you can revisit in 5, 10, 25 years, and the story will still be good, but for some reason, it’ll be different. Because you  are different. What more can you ask for from anything? Be it a story, a parent, a lover – a good one allows you to grow, grows with you, still remains true to itself.

After reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, I wanted to learn more about early American politics – my civic knowledge is sorely lacking. A book crossed my path that looked really good – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. It was written by Walter Isaacson, the same guy who wrote the recently published Steve Jobs biography. Benjamin Franklin is a BIG, intimidating book, but I thought I’d give it a shot and am sooo glad I did! I have a new-found admiration for the complex person that Benjamin Franklin was.

This very large, potentially very dry and boring book covered Franklin’s entire life, but did so in a way that was far from dry and boring. Franklin himself was not dry, was not boring – this bio paints him in such a way as to highlight his charm, his curiosity, and his intelligence, without glossing over his less endearing personality quirks.

When I read John Adams by David McCullough (a wonderfully well-written book about our cantankerous but endearingly earnest second president), Franklin’s exploits were touched on, and in this book, the reverse is true. Adams and Franklin had a sort of love-hate relationship, and it’s interesting to read about it from both sides.

Franklin led a full, full life – this book covers all of it. After reading this book, I’ve gotten to know better the man behind the myth. Franklin was full of nuance and depth. It seems that what we need now, in this world, is another Franklin. Someone who has a curious, practical mind, who embodies the American dream, who is a champion of the middle class and who believes in the community supporting each other. He was against “big government” but believed in fair taxes, and felt that wealthy people should give back to their communities – of their own volition, without any government regulation. He was a stickler for clear rules and regulations, but didn’t mind playing a part during a negotiation, bending the truth or leaving details out to benefit the newly forming America. He was shrewd, yet had a charming naiveté.

This book helped me understand more about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, and brought Benjamin Franklin to life – it was interesting, and very much a page-turner (which is huge – I almost never finish non-fiction works; they just fade out at the end into ‘blah’. This was a far cry from blah).

It definitely has made me want to read more about the founding fathers, the beginning of our nation, the Civil War, our presidents…. There’s so much to know, and I’m looking forward to finding other well-written books to help learn it.

After finishing The Orchid Thief, I resumed reading Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness (see previous posting about being unable to get to my book.. too cold, too far).

Witihin this Wilderness was recommended to me by my boss–she knew Feenie Ziner, and said I would have liked her. I certainly like the way she writes, what she says… I think we would have gotten along just fine.

This book was also described to me as being similar to John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, another book I really enjoyed.

It is similar, and yet, it’s not.

Into The Wild is a very compelling read because it was pieced together by a journalist and told in a clear-eyed yet sympathetic way. There is an air of mystery around Christopher McCandless, the missing man-child — Why’d he go? How’d he die? For that matter, how’d he live?  Krakauer is exceptional at telling a story around the story – putting up the frame, so that we can picture the whole house.

Feenie Ziner’s story is different, in that the tale is told by the mother of the man-child who removes himself from society. She describes her struggle–at first, to get him home, and finally, to accept him as he is.

In the 70’s, Feenie’s son, Joe Ziner, moved to British Columbia to get away from civilization and to find himself. She was able to visit her ‘missing’ son, and try to form a bond, a connection, a conversation, with him. The story comes from that tension. Will mom ever understand her son? Will he ever understand his mother? In the end, they reach an accord of sorts. It’s a beautiful story, of love in all its forms. Love for the wilderness, love between a mother and son, love for life… however it must be expressed.

Feenie was a children’s book author, had a long career teaching in the English department at UConn, and was most recently, a Branford, CT resident. Her son ended up becoming a book publisher. He did not completely disappear, the way the boy in Into The Wild did.  The story of Within is not that of “how could this person lose himself and completely disappear”. This story is one we are all familiar with–a story of acceptance of who we are, what we want, and what we must do to be happy when we don’t get it.

Within This Wilderness is also an exploration of how we reconcile ourselves to living in a world of consumption when we are, at heart, children of the land. We are all pure, yearning for simple lives. And yet, we struggle against simply ‘making do’. We humans must progress, achieve, build. Where do we draw the line and say, enough? For Joe, he opposed the Vietnam War, opposed American’s ignorance of its horrors and mindlessness, opposed immoral accumulation, opposed partaking of suburban America. His only solution to was to flee, and to set up in a minimalist shack in the wilds of British Columbia. but you can’t escape your emotions, and he had to reconcile those eventually, with himself, his mother, if not his country. As his mother wrote, “in time, everyone who undertakes a great moral journey must confront the fact that the Devil is always the stowaway.”

This book is almost 30 years old, but the emotional struggles are as relevant as ever.  Coming up next:  The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard.