Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Starting over again...

Failing to write a review for each book I read, I have now accepted that as not happening; however, I do enjoy blogging and would like to publish with some regularity.  My new goal is to publish once a week with Monday as my publication day.  I am late this week but look forward to having a deadline.

This first entry for the year is a reflection on my reading for 2016.  At the end of this reflection, I have included a list of the 68 books I read this past year including the date I finished reading each one.  The list is backwards with my most recent reads at the top.  I had some different goals for this past year.

There were two different reading challenges that I attempted: one was a list of 16 random suggestions, the other was trying to read 26 books each with the author’s last name beginning with the letters of the alphabet.  There was leeway given for a couple of letters.  I did manage to find an author with X in his name but did not read authors for Q, U, V, Y, or Z.  The other challenge I came close to completing:

·         Book published this year: Midnight Taxi Tango by Daniel Jose Older

Book you can finish in a day: William Blake by Martin Butlin

Book you've been meaning to read: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Book recommended by your local librarian/Book seller: Dryland by Sara Jaffe

Book you should have read in school: Middlemarch by George Eliot

Book chosen for you by spouse/partner/sibling/child/BFF (personally adding parent):A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Book published before you were born: John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen

Book that was banned at some point: 

Book you have previously abandoned: The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert

Book you own but have never read: The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar

Book that intimidates you:

Book you have already read at least once: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
I could have moved Rowling to the banned category and listed another book previously read.    And I was intimidated for many years by Middlemarch, but the rules did not allow for counting the same book in two categories.  As it was the only book I could think of that was assigned and not finished in college, I placed it in that category.  Ulysses was another possible for intimidation but did not finish it.

I began the year trying to see how many books I could read for the first list, and six categories were quickly checked off.  For February I wanted to focus on books by African American or Black writers, and two of the books selected moved nicely to March when I focused on women.  Of these explorations, I learned the most from reading the works of diverse writers.  It is difficult to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and not have your view of the world changed.  Whether I was reading a slave narrative, poetry, or dystopian fiction, the viewpoint from an author of color is compelling because the language and the point of view demonstrates how inadequate well-meaning authors can be who do not have first-hand experience.  The example which was truly well-intentioned but laughable was a biography I read: Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It all Out by Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan.  Hampton and Nathan were personal friends of Nina Simone.  A brother and sister, they started her first fan club in England and become friends with her.  They attempted to tell her story focusing on her involvement in the Civil Rights movement.  But they had no idea what it was like to live in this country during the 1960s.  They lacked a true understanding of racism in the United States. 

When I compared this to Jessye Norman’s memoir, her first-hand experience had some similarities with Nina Simone.  Her memoir was gentle compared to the depressing life of Simone; however, there was a reality to Norman’s memoir that was missing from the Simone biography.  And although Coates’ voice may contain a more angry tone, his writing has much more in common with Norman’s.

The book that took me the longest time to read was I Heart Obama by Erin Aubry Kaplan.  I have previously posted this review on

This is an amazingly conceived and well documented reflection on Barack Obama, not simply as the first Black President, but through the eyes of the Black community. It is something that I have wondered about since his election.
Kaplan looks at him not only as the President, but she assesses the role he plays as a Folk Hero. She puts into words the frustration I have felt as a white American with the racist members of our society. Unfortunately, his election brought seething to the surface the silent racists. If he has disappointed some Blacks because he has not done enough for them, Kaplan states what he has stated; he is the President for all of us. Some white members of society may think he has favored the blacks, but he has definitely not. He has represented all of us as he promised to do.
I was a child during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and have been appalled at the treatment of Obama and the racism that has escalated during his presidency. I read this book like a textbook, underlining and annotating as I read. I learned much about the Civil Rights movement, the leaders not just of the movement, but also the voices that had an impact on the movement. It was an enlightening book for me and has sent me on to other texts and authors mentioned.
History will vindicate the Presidency of Barack Obama. I am proud to have voted for him. I do not agree with all of his decisions, but that is what being thoughtful means.
My one disappointment with the book is the title: seeing a heart = love in today's popular culture. The title as spelled out in the book is I Heart Obama. I read it: I Love Obama. The title diminishes the seriousness of the book and the research Kaplan has done.
After reading this intense piece of non-fiction, I took a break by reading some funny books, some YA titles, and miscellaneous books of choice.

After that I decided to read a series of novels by Blue Balliett, written for middle school/elementary age students.  Beginning with Chasing Vermeer, Balliett has a group of kids in Chicago who get involved with mysteries involving art, math, science, and a teacher in a private school who teaches the way I would have loved to teach given the freedom she has.  All the books are wonderful with one caveat: Hold Fast focuses on a black family.  The story is great, but there is no sense of blackness in this family.  They are described as black, but that is it.  I am not sure I would have noticed this a year ago, but since reading books by Daniel Jose Older and focusing on black writers, the lack of authentic voice was jarring.  I believe her research was accurate, and she creates a believable family, but they are only black through a label.

I do enjoy reading several works by the same author in chronological order as I did with the books of Blue Balliett.  In September I read four novels by the Belgian writer, Amelie Nothomb.  Seeing the connections within these four titles, I again regret not going for the PhD and being able to write about literature.  It is what I feel called to do.  And there is a joy in getting comfortable enough with a writer, that you can return to said author later and enjoy the new if familiar territory.  This past month I read Shakespeare’s Landlord, the first of the Lily Bard mysteries, by Charlaine Harris, for the second time.  I had forgotten the details and enjoyed having the mystery play out for me again.  I immediately followed it by the next two books in the series.  I know that when I return to the world of Lily Bard, I will remember the first three mysteries without a problem.

But of all the books I read this year, I am pleased to have read George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  I first attempted to read it for an undergrad course in the late 1970s.  Unfortunately, that semester I took three literature courses and one history course.  I was inundated with reading.  Part of the course requirement was to give an oral report on the end of Middlemarch.  I think there were two or three of us assigned to that novel, and I was responsible for the end.  I started reading the 823 pages with enthusiasm, and my marginalia reflects my enjoyment.  But as I neared the presentation date, I fell behind, skipped the center section, and attempted to read the end.  I did get a C in that course: a well-deserved C, and one of only two C’s on my record.  This novel is dense, and it took me a few chapters to get into the flow of reading Eliot again.  Oh, those characters came alive for me.

So it was a good year of reading, and I exceeded my goal of 65 books by three.  

Completed Reading 2016

68. Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris - 31 December 2016
67. Shakespeare's Champion by Charlaine Harris - 25 December 2016
66. People Knitting A Century of Photographs - 24 December 2016
65. Ophelia Alive: A Ghost Story by Luke T. Harrington - 31 December 2016
64. Shakespeare's Landlord by Charlaine Harris - 19 December 2016
63. The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore - 18 December 2016
62. Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier - 11 December 2016
61. Logicomix - An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos H. Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos & Annie DiDonna - 10 December 2016
60. Exit: Pursued By a Bear by E.K. Johnston - 8 December 2016
59. Stitches A Memoir by David Small - 4 December 2016
58. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel - 4 December 2016
57. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami - 27 November 2016
56. You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack: Comics by Tom Gauld - 5 November 2016
55. Middlemarch by George Eliot - 30 December 2016
54. Apples by Frank Browning - 20 November 2016
53. Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb - 30 September 2016
52. The Life of Hunger by Amelie Nothomb - 28 September 2016
51. The Character of Rain by Amelie Nothomb - 25 September 2016
50. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb - 23 September 2016
49. The Biorhythm Kit by Jacyntha Crawley - 21 September 2016
48. The Demonologist by William Pyper - 19 September 2016
47. Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs - 11 September 2016
46. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne - 10 September 2016
45. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell - 30 August 2016
44. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler - 19 August 2016
43. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling - 4 September 2016
42. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - 15 August 2016
41. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling - 10 August 2016
40. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan - 9 September 2016
39. Shimmering Japanese Sunlight: Musings On a Woman's Travels in Japan by Kay Thomas - 4 July 2016
38. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black - 30 June 2016
37. Pieces and Players by Blue Balliett - 28 June 2016
36. Hold Fast by Blue Balliett - 26 June 2016
35. The Danger Box by Blue Balliett - 24 June 2016
34. The Calder Game by Blue Balliett - 22 June 2016
33. The Wright 3 by Blue Balliett - 19 June 2016
32. Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett - 17 June 2016
31. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin - 15 June 2016
30. Twisted Tales From Shakespeare by Richard Armour - 30 May 2016
29. Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older - 29 May 2016
28. Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner - 26 May 2016
27. Dryland by Sara Jaffe - 21 May 2016
26. Peace: The Words and Inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi - 20 May 2016
25. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling - 26 June 2016
24. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson - 18 May 2016
23. Just an Ordinary Day (stories) by Shirley Jackson - 13 May 2016
22. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling - 19 May 2016
21. I Heart Obama by Erin Aubry Kaplan - 28 April 2016
20. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss - 27 March 2016.
19. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood - 26 March 2016
18. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling - 31 March 2016
17. Stand Up Straight and Sing! A Memoir by Jessye Norman - 7 March 2016
16. Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out by Sylvia Hampton with David Nathan -
28 February 2016
15. Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis - 23 February 2016
14. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - 21 February 2016
13. The Illegal by Lawrence Hill - 16 February 2016
12. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling - 25 February 2016
11. The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar - 9 February 2016
10. Rite of Passage by Richard Wright - 31 January 2016
9. William Blake by Martin Butlin - 28 January 2016
8. Midnight Taxi Tango by Daniel Jose Older - 27 January 2016
7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling - 4 February 2016
6. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - 22 January 2016
5. John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen - 14 January 2016
4. Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older - 13 January 2016
3. The Call by Yannick Murphy - 9 January 2016
2. The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert - 7 January 2016
1. Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - 3 January 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016

Breathless excitement...

Earlier this year I posted a review of two novels by Daniel Jose' Older.  My writing was stilted because for the first time since becoming more aware of diversity issues in the world of book publishing, I was a white woman reviewing books that were not set in my world.  I was aware of my white privilege and trying too hard.  Not this time!

I LOVE THE WORLDS CREATED BY OLDER, and yes, I am shouting.  Like his Bone Street Rumba novels, there is a connection between the worlds of the living and the dead, but that is not to say it is the same.  What is the same is the vibrancy of the language, the tempo set for the telling of the story, and the wondrous world created in Brooklyn.

Sierra Santiago is a graffiti artist (my words) busy painting a dragon on the wall of a building recently constructed and abandoned.  She notices that a tear has emerged in the eye on another mural, and suddenly paintings are beginning to fade.  Sierra's coming of age journey brings her to a full understanding of her life as a Shadowshaper.  Her abuelo, no longer able to speak clearly, begins the story, but Sierra must follow clues and make connections.  No spoilers ever in my reviews, but I want to live in this world.  It is the same feeling I had when reading Older's other novels.  

Shadowshaper is a YA novel, and this retired high school English teacher wishes she was still working with young adults.  Older shares the world of the Hispanic teens and the challenges they face due to white privilege - not just as barriers in how they are viewed by others, but how they view themselves.  Sierra is viewing herself in a mirror: "Her skin was another matter.  It wasn't bad skin - a zit here and there and the occasional dry island.  But once when she was chatting with some stupid boy online, she described herself as the color of coffee with not enough milk"(79).  This line will resonate with students of color.  Reminiscent of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, this knowledge that life could be better if only my skin was lighter feels like a slap in the face for me as a white reader.  I cannot imagine how a young person of color deals with this racism every single day.  Sierra also has an aunt who reminds her that her hair is too bushy.  

There are other subtle reminders of white privilege as seen through these eyes; Sierra and her friends attend Octavia Butler High School.  (If you have never read anything by this marvelous author of science fiction, I recommend beginning with Kindred.)  And one of my favorite conversations in the novel is not plot developing but another reminder of white privilege:

“Imma write a book,” Tee announced.  “It’s gonna be about white people.”
          Izzy scowled.  “Seriously, Tee:  Shut up.  Everyone can hear you.”
“I’m being serious,” Tee said.  “If this Wick cat do all this research about Sierra’s grandpa and all his Puerto Rican spirits, I don’t see why I can’t write a book about his people.”  (161)

I laughed aloud reading this because of the irony.  How many white people think they can write about other cultures and peoples without doing any research?  This quick bit of dialogue is a reminder of the inequities in our country.

I’m still not thoroughly happy with this review, but it is much better than my review of the Bone Street Rumba novels.  I am looking forward to many more trips into the magical realism of Brooklyn through the eyes of Daniel Jose’ Older.

Older, Daniel Jose’. Shadowshaper. NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015. Print.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why Book Groups Don't Work for Me...

Last year I read 65 books.  In the past, I have read as many as 104 books in one year, but when I look back on those longer lists, there are many books I do not remember.  Several years ago I began to take notes on every book I read; it may slow down my reading, but I prefer this connection between reading and writing.  Acquaintances will frequently ask me if I am in a book group and are surprised at my response, "Not traditional book groups."

I am in a Great Books group which meets monthly September through June (excluding December and January), but we read excerpts, short stories, essays, poems, and occasionally a play.  We only read a novel during the summer for September discussion.  However, I've missed the past four months due to other commitments.  I meet monthly with a group of Bookcrossers, and we exchange and discuss books but are never reading the same book for a group discussion.  This informal gathering of readers is my favorite book group.  We discuss books briefly and pass on those ready to share.  If no one is interested in a book, it is left at our bookcrossing zone.  (Bookcrossing is a fun website.  The premise is to register books and leave them places in the hopes that another reader will take the book and journal on his/her experience reading it.  There are also forums for book discussion.  No one is required to set up an account to explore the site.)  I belonged to three or four different monthly book groups beginning in the early 90s and stopped two years ago because I rarely had the book read in time for the meeting.

What I have discovered over the years is I am much happier choosing what I want to read, when I want to read it.  I usually try to have five or six books that are "next to be read."  But sometimes one book leads to another because of the topic or the author.  Sometimes I walk by my bookshelves, and a book speaks to me, begging to be read next.  I enjoy this freedom.

There are always challenges out there calling to me.  One appeared on Facebook this year starting as a blog someone posted; it had suggestions for broadening your reading choices: read a book published before you were born, read a book you should have read in school, read a book that has been banned, etc.  My regular reading encompasses every challenge on the list, so I signed up to see how quickly I could work through the 16 categories and completed 5 in January.  I usually follow the CBC's offering of Canada Reads because of my love affair with Canada and the works of Canadian authors - not just those readily available in the United States like Margaret Atwood or Louise Penny - but others I must buy in Canada.

In the past few months, I have become more interested in reading for diversity.  I have long been an advocate of teaching and reading more female authors and authors of color.  There is nothing wrong with reading books by dead white men, but we need to go beyond the past.  It doesn't take much effort to find blogs that make a person think more about what she is reading.  One of my favorites is American Indians in Children's Literature.  Debbie Reese has opened my mind on more than the portrayal of American Indians and introduced me to other writers.

One of those writers, Daniel Jose' Older, was the subject of my first posting this year.  Check it out!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

New beginnings...again.

NOTE:  I started this entry on 2 February with the intention of posting it before anything else; however, I accidentally published a review I finished writing and could not figure out how to take it down.

It has been over a year since my last posting.  That sounds like the beginning of a Catholic confession, but it really is the sound of shock hitting me square in the forehead.  OVER A YEAR!  What the hell? But as I said in my last post of 2014, if I don't write the review immediately after reading the novel, I become too far removed.  So I have been doing some mental planning for changes in my blog.  This planning started over a month ago, but it takes effect now.

Beginning today, 2 February 2016, I will post weekly.  If a book asks me to write a review, I will write one; otherwise, I will write a report on what I have been reading.  I was truly shocked today when I realized my last posting was in 2014, and my new beginnings must start with commentary, however brief, on my reading for 2015.

2015 began with readings that appealed to the senses: Perfume by Patrick Suskind and The Bells by Richard Harvell.  I followed these with a fun middle school novel, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, which I had read previously, and Vermeer by Sandra Forty, a brief study of his art.  It was pleasant reading for those cold months of last winter.  Then I went through a few months with low and high points; I read a best seller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, reminding me why I do not usually read best sellers: if it sounds like it is based on something that happened in the news, I'm not interested.  To clear my head of that drivel, I read a new YA novel by a Canadian author, Raziel Reid, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, and loved it.

I read wonderful mysteries like The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith and award-winning novels such as The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  I bought and read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo before everyone was talking about it.  It has helped me; although I still have a lot to do, but it helped me understand why I am a disorganized person who easily adapts to clutter.  Understanding my mother's method of cleaning, I can see that what makes sense to one person does not always make sense to someone else.  Trying to get organized means beginning by throwing things away.  I am still throwing things away.  This is easier to do when you have reached my age.

After several years of saying I should read something by Louise Penny, I read Still Life and became a Gamache devotee.  I continued to read and enjoy anything by Carl Hiaasen, Stephen King, Alice Hoffman, and Neil Gaiman and based on recommendations from friends became a fan of Eowyn Ivey and Mo Hayder.  I read Toni Morrison's newest book, God Help the Child, and her first novel, The Bluest Eye.  I read Beloved again and decided I need to read all of her novels. This will not happen in one year, but the process has begun and reading them in order of publication suits my preferred author focus.

When classes started up at Alfred State College in August, I checked out the new books offered in the Hinkle Library.  Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, is magnificent.  I have enjoyed her books for high school and elementary students for a long time.  Unfortunately, her works are a hard sell with the rural audience I have taught for most of my career.

As summer turned to autumn my thoughts gravitated toward Halloween.  I read two classic horror novels: Carrie by Stephen King and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.  Having never read Carrie, I approached it as if Stephen King was a new author.  It was fun to have that mindset, which enabled me to almost experience his writing as others would have when the novel first appeared.  As someone familiar with his work, I was able to enjoy the stylistic choices he had in that first novel and how he has improved them over the years.  I have had a copy of The Exorcist since its first appearance in paperback.  The young Catholic girl was going to read it and risk damnation.  Well, I never got around to reading that novel until October.  It was a good read and literally fell apart as I turned the pages.  It is one of the few books I have ever thrown out.

Margaret Atwood's latest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress - Nine Wicked Tales, was written for her peers...those of us who have reached a certain age.  Marvelous.  And I finished out the year reading several YA novels and novels aimed at middle school audiences: Blue Balliett is a favorite author of mine along with the  previously mentioned Carl Hiaasen who is able to write for adults and younger readers with equal success.  And I entered the world of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  Wonderfully inventive use of time travel beginning with his collection of old photos.  I have since read the trilogy.

But I must take time to mention two works of non-fiction that both affected me for completely different reasons: The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.  If you haven't read Malcolm X, you should.  It is one of those books that I have been meaning to read for years and finally decided to read.  I learned so much about Malcolm X; Spike Lee's film enlightened me, but so many situations were explained and expanded on in the book.  Our lack of education regarding people of color in this country is deplorable.  Lack of diversity in literature of the United States has become a topic close to my heart and is an issue I will be exploring.  I have also become more concerned with chemicals in food even before they are processed.  Kingsolver's book describes her family's experiences eating locally for a year.  That year was transformative for all of them and convinced me that I should attempt to find more of my foods locally and eliminate purchasing food that has been transported long distances.  Eating locally means eating fruits and vegetables in season and preserving them for later use.  As spring emerges here in New York, I will be attentive to the local crops available at several local farmers' markets.  Between the racism and intolerance that is growing at a time when it should be a non-issue, and Monsanto's poisoning of our food and the bees which are necessary for plant life, this 60 something woman is disillusioned with her country.  The young woman I was 40 years ago never imagined life in our country would be so discouraging as she approached retirement.

Thus ends my overdue entry: an overview of my reading for the year and commentary on life as I se it..  I hope it encourages some of you to check back as I blog on a more regular basis.  And I hope you enjoyed seeing three of my favorite authors at work: I will never have as neat a desk as Joyce Carol Oates but am closer to Stephen King's style of clutter than Ray Bradbury's.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bone Street Rumba Novels...a new series

Back in June my Book Riot Box included a novel by Daniel Jose’ Older.  I was not familiar with Older, but the novel was announced as the first in a new series.  Looking at the cover, I was delighted to see it was not a zombie or vampire series but something different – something new.  I set it aside while preparing for the Shakespeare Seminar I lead each summer, and it was lost among the many books waiting to be read.
Fast forward to November…because of my interest in diversity in literature I began following a controversy regarding a children’s book, A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall.  I will not explain the controversy, if interested, Google the title; however, one of the links led me to a panel discussion with Jenkins and other authors, including Daniel Jose’ Older.  I found his comments to be cogent, sincere, and eye-opening.  I began a search to learn more about him, and while reading his Facebook page, I had my “Ah Ha” moment: there was a photo of Half-Resurrection Blues.  And it became one of my first reads of 2016.
Older is an excellent storyteller and sucked me in immediately.  Carlos Delacruz is an Inbetweener: neither dead nor alive, he was partially resurrected.  He works for the New York Council of the Dead, and his territory is Brooklyn.  As the story begins, Carlos is the only Inbetweener but soon others appear, and he is in a battle with Sarco who wants to destroy the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead. 
Half-Resurrection Blues is peopled with a mixture of humans and ghosts, some of whom understand Carlos’ world.  Carlos does not know anything about his previous life.  The first face he saw as an Inbetweener was Riley, a ghost, and now his best friend.  But my favorite ghost is Mama Esther:
Then we enter the library, the only room in the entire house with any furniture, and everything’s all right again.  There aren’t even shelves, just stacks and stacks of books from floor to ceiling.  You’d think it’d be a chaotic mess, all packed in there like that, but somehow there’s a harmony to it: the books seem almost suspended in midair…Esther’s floating in her usual spot right in the center of the room.  That’s where her head is anyway.  Beneath that great girth smile, her wide body stretches out into invisibility in a way that lets you know she’s got the whole house tucked within those fat ghostly folds. (29).
If I ever return as a ghost, I want to be Mama Kate. 
The world of the living includes Baba Eddie and Kia, a sixteen year old girl who runs his Botanica.  Even at fourteen, Kia was knowledgeable and confident, “She bounced back and forth between customers, arguing about how much yerba buena to use in a spiritual cleansing and helping an old man who wanted to get his wife back from her new lesbian lover” (41).
But the world of Carlos Delacruz is filled with fear and violence: fear of the destruction of both worlds if Sarco is successful and the violent battle that ensues including a nearly indestructible being: the Ngk.  Carlos is in the middle of this from the opening when the Council of the Dead orders him to kill the other Inbetweener who has appeared, and Carlos makes a promise with unknown entanglements.  It is a dark urban fantasy.
And as I was finishing my visit to the dark world of Half-Resurrection Blues, the second Bone Street Novel, Midnight Taxi Tango, hit the shelves with a January, 2016 publication.  It picks up with some new characters and another battle threatening the comfortable, if sometimes uneasy, separation of the worlds of the living and the dead.
The end of Half-Resurrection Blues left Carlos with some complications in his life.  He is still the main character, but Kia evolves into a young woman of power and conviction.  Her background is developed, and her interest in capoeira forced me to Google it: what an amazing martial arts form.  Another human character, Reza, a lesbian taxi driver with a special twist to her job, joins the battle, and these three characters alternate as the narrators.  This time they are taking on the Blattodeons; pink cockroaches with primordial power.    
Maybe my experience with the first novel brought me to a better reading of Midnight Taxi Tango, or perhaps the idea of Blattodeons is more disgusting in my mind, but I found some of the descriptions absolutely horrific.  Reza shoots at a strange man and:
For a second he just stands there.  Angry holes pockmark his face, his hands, those long robes.  Little curls of smoke plume out of each one, and I can only imagine what the blowout from the exit wounds must be like on the other side.  Then I see the skin on his neck shudder; it’s moving.  It’s alive.  It’s one of those evil fucking insects, making its skittish, evil way up his chin and across his startled face.  (75).
I do not give spoilers in my reviews, but trust me, these descriptions will get the adrenaline pumping.
            Both novels are mesmerizing trips into a realistic urban environment.  Older has other published books including the highly acclaimed YA novel, Shadowshaper. I am looking forward to many more excursions into the worlds he creates.  Note: His books are available on Audible, and he is the narrator for Midnight Taxi Tango.

Older, Daniel Jose’. Half-Resurrection Blues. New York: ROC/Penguin, 2015. Print.

---. Midnight Taxi Tango. New York: ROC/Penguin, 2016. Print.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

At long last...I have returned...

Why?  Why was my last posting in June?!  I have two problems with keeping this blog up to date: I prefer to write a review immediately after reading the book and do not like to start reading a new book until I have posted the review.  If a few days pass with no time for writing, I start another book and get too removed from the review.  Sigh…I am not obsessive on many issues, but writing is one of them.  This entry will be a quick review of one book with a brief mention of the prior novel read.

If you have never explored Book Riot, I highly recommend this site for honestly interesting articles and book recommendations.  Recently I read one of their recommendations, What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund; it is a thought provoking examination of our minds at work when we read and a deceptively quick read because you will want to read it again…and again.

Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf, book cover designer, and a “recovering classical pianist” (book cover).  He approaches the topic through focusing on several famous works including Anna Karenina.  His love of music and art are also strong components.  It is a fluid use of examples familiar to most readers.  This reader found herself making some immediate connections with things she thought about while reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod.  I delayed writing about MacLeod’s novel because I needed to let it settle in my mind.  I thought, mistakenly, that Mendelsund’s book would be one I could read for a bit and put down.  But by page 19, I knew that was not going to happen:

Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavior than physical description.  Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything).  We fill in gaps.  We shade them in.  We gloss over them.  We elide.  Anna [Karenina]: her hair, her weight—these are facets only, and do not make up a true image of a person. 

Of course!  And it already had me thinking:  how much description of a character do authors really give?  How clearly do we see a character?  I’ve thought about this many times.  I don’t see characters clearly – just enough.  While reading No Great Mischief I envisioned body types and general features but not true faces.  Even books I love and have read multiple times do not create exact images of characters in my mind.  It is not important to know the exact features of Hester Prynne or Huck Finn; their beliefs and actions are the importance of character.  Character is not defined by looks.

Mendelsund discusses the issue of characters brought to life in films:  “One should watch a film adaption of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind.  This is a very real hazard” (41).  I stopped reading for a moment because one of my favorite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a victim of this experience.  I saw the film before reading Harper Lee’s novel.  When I read it, all the characters were clear images in my mind: clear images of the actors performing the roles.  Those images were so real; years later, teaching it for the first time, I bought the film on VCR (latest technology of the time).  I was shocked to discover the snowman scene had been edited out.  Colleagues convinced me it was never in the film, but the actors/characters were so clear in my mind, I saw them while reading that scene.  Thinking about it now, I guess I was “reading a movie.”

His thoughts on reading are haunting me now in a wonderful way.  This book has not changed me as a reader, but it has changed the way I will discuss books.  “Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader” (303).  No one ever reads the same book twice; I may read a book I have read before, but I am a different person.  I have discussed this many times with students.  It is why I enjoy reading books multiple times.  “To read is: to look through; to look past…though also, to look myopically, hopefully, toward…There is very little looking at” (334-5).

Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read.  Vintage Books: New York, 2014.  Print.

And…No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod is a marvelous, award-winning Canadian novel.  Unfortunately, MacLeod is one of the creative voices we lost in 2014.  The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, “guides us through his family’s mythic past as he recollects the heroic stories of his people: loggers, miners, drinkers, adventurers; men forever in exile, forever linked to their clan…beginning with the legendary patriarch who left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 for Nova Scotia” (from the back cover).

MacLeod, Alistair. No Great Mischief. McClelland & Stewart LTD: Toronto, 2001. Print.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Thinking about books and reading...

Normally this blog is dedicated to reviews, but my recent birthday gave me pause to think about what I read and how others perceive my choices.  Two different friends gave me these books for my birthday.  Both friends know of my love of literature and Canada.  The person who presented this lovely edition of poetry by Dylan Thomas actually sent a text asking if I liked this poet.  I am delighted to have this because previously I only had examples found in anthologies.  This New Directions edition even includes an essay on the Art of Poetry by Thomas.  The second friend took a chance that I would not have How To Be a Canadian * (Even If You Already Are One) by Will Ferguson and Ian Ferguson in my library; he was correct.  This is an amusing book; one to pick up, read a bit, skip around, and read a bit more.  But a book of poetry also requires the willingness to read a book a little at a time, even if the level or type of engagement with the text will be quite different.  As I tend to read from several books at the same time, it is nice to have some offering varying intensities of attention.

It is also nice as I am about half way through my reading year to reflect on my progress.  I always set myself a goal, and having challenged myself to 75 books in 2014, I am a bit behind.  I know why as life interferes and a different work schedule has changed my reading time.  But with less work in the summer and reduced teaching in the fall, I anticipate catching up and making my goal.  Unlike the past few years when I had categories to challenge my tendency to lapse into only fiction, this year I decided to start with a particular shelf of books and see where it took me.  

The year began with Canadian authors: two authors of YA novels and an adult novel on the "Canada Reads" list.  I was also reading short stories from the anthology for the Introduction to Literature class I taught.  I moved into a more recent novel, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, followed by The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder...again, for my class.  Together with a third novel,, the connections between time and where our lives take us emerged as a common theme.

As my annual pilgrimage to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada approaches, I usually revisit some plays by Shakespeare and perhaps one or two of the other plays I'll be seeing with my seminar group.  But over the past few years I've also enjoyed the liberty of reading some books inspired by Shakespeare.  It is fun to see how other people make connections with the plays.  Last year I discovered a wonderful novel, I, Iago by Nicole Galland in preparation for a performance of Othello, and will revisit Fool by Christopher Moore along with King Lear for this summer.  But two other books have also jumped off the shelf together with my beloved Pelican edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare: A Midsummer Tempest by Poul Anderson and Shakespeare's Daughter by Peter W. Hassinger.

A Midsummer Night's Tempest is a classic from the genre of science fiction.  The back cover offers inviting promise: "Welcome to the world of Puck and Caliban, Oberon and Titania, Ariel and Neptune, to the world of Faery, where a single night can while away a century  and gold can turn to dross in the twinkling of an elfin eye...but what in the world of Faery is that steam engine doing there - and King Charles: he wasn't even born when Shakespeare wrote!"  Anderson has joined the worlds of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest with additional surprises.  It offers me a fun way to revisit the Dream.  And Hassinger has written a YA novel that creates a world for Susanna Shakespeare.  I always had some students who enjoyed historical fiction; after all, Shakespeare did not expect us to be treating his plays like the Bible.

And who knows...perhaps as I shift between the physical books on my shelves and the Nook Library I am becoming accustomed to, I may even take up the challenge of another friend and read a romance.  This morning I finished reading a classic ghost story on my Nook.  The world is full of marvelous things.