Friday, August 10, 2018

"May. Entering Florida."

So we read in “Before: An Inventory,” a lyrical composite of images and experiences that closes out the collection of essays I read for this week’s challenge. Picking up various options in fits and starts, I finally settled on Sunshine State by memoirist Sarah Gerard.

 In the preceding essays, however, Gerard, interlaces her personal history with that of historical and contemporary figures who shaped, in some small part, her story.

 “In 1862, Mary Baker Eddy traveled…to see a famous healer named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby.”

“If it’s not your family who brings you in, it’s probably a friend.”

“I first saw G.W. in a 2006 documentary called Easy Street.”

“My father and I were pallbearers.”

In “Sunshine State,” the most mesmerizing essay of the collection, Gerard volunteers at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary hoping to write an essay on birds.  In it, she writes:

“The cover of the August 1974 issue of Smithsonian shows a blue heron standing on a grassy bank in front of a calm lake. A hunter’s arrow dangles from its throat."

But coming across the sanctuary’s director, who wanders around shirtless and acts, well, a bit odd, she begins investigating the people who have been running the place since the early 1970s. She ends the essay with a few pages on Magnolia, a conure she and her husband foster for a few days before deciding they don’t have the energy to cater to her whims nor the tolerance for her mess.  

Friday, August 3, 2018

"This is like poetry"

Challenge #10. Read a romance novel by or about a person of color.

As the novel opens, Ifemelu is searching for a decent place to have her hair braided.  She has recently decided to return to Nigeria, shutting down her successful blog on race in America.  Even though she is confident she can easily find work back home, she is more nervous about running into her ex-boyrfriend Obinze, now married with a young daughter.

The novel traces their early relationship, Ifemelu’s departure to America, and the challenges she faces in finance, culture, and romance.  It also delves into Obinze’s story as he tries to make a go of it in England. When a marriage scheme goes awry, he is forced to return to Nigeria. Settling into family life and cultivating the relationships required to be a successful investor, he occasionally hears from Ifemelu but pines for more contact.

Although Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may not be a bodice ripper, it includes plenty of steamy scenes. More than a novel of unrequited love between two lovers, however, its an examination of the complicated attraction of a woman to her homeland.

Looking for more romance fiction by women of color? Click here

Friday, July 13, 2018

“Who doesn’t want to save the parks and schools?”

From the recent decision on the salmon case that originated in the state of Washington to this week’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, SCOTUS has been much in the news lately.

Although if Kavanaugh makes it through the confirmation process, it’s unlikely his visage will appear in the pages of Dave Eggers next book.

Justice Ginsburg, however, does make several appearances in Eggers' most recent novel for young readers – The Lifters (illustrated by  Aaron Renier) – on the favorite t-shirt of Catalina Catalan. Catalina has been the only student at Carousel Middle School to acknowledge the new kid in class, who has the unfortunate name of Granite Flowerpetal.

Granite, or Gran (as he’s renamed himself), has just moved to town with his down-on-their-luck family. Although they have a roof over their heads, thanks to a ramshackle house passed down from his great-great-grandparents, they are short on cash since the job offered to Gran’s father as a mechanic never materializes. Actually, the whole town is in a depression of sorts since the main industry, a carousel factory, closed several years before. It’s also a town divided, with factions fighting for and against new propositions.

Gran soon discovers Catalina’s after-school job isn’t mowing lawns or babysitting, but lifting – placing new supports in the complex network of tunnels beneath the town. At first, Catalina rejects Gran’s offers of help, but soon realizes he’s a worthy nemesis rather than nuisance.  The two make a discovery well-below the surface which proves to be the boost the town needs to banish the Hollows forever.

Younger readers may appreciate the one page (and even one line) chapters sprinkled throughout the book and the imaginative excuses Gran thinks up to explain an overnight absence:

“Could he say he had been caught in a bear trap? That he’d been kidnapped by rogue scientists forcing him to test jetpack technology?”

Older readers may appreciate the nods to our current political divisiveness and syntax straight out of Hemingway:

“He had to go home. And he knew there would be trouble at home. But he had to face it, and he had to hurry.”

If you haven’t had your fill of SCOTUS, I suggest checking-out Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World.

Friday, July 6, 2018

"Up can be down"

A few months ago, my fourth-grader had to write a book report on a biography of a famous person. So my son chose to read All About Stephen Hawking by Chris Edwards and Amber Calderon. When it came time to write the report, he was supposed to write about the person’s greatest achievements. Expecting to read something about Hawking’s physics research or perhaps a book title or two, I was tickled to find that my son had written that Hawking’s greatest achievement was…his children.

When asked about their greatest achievements, the couple in Lisa Genova’s novel Every Note Played would answer very differently. Early in their marriage, Karina gave up a career as a jazz pianist to care for their young daughter. Richard spent most of his daughter’s childhood away on tour as a concert pianist.

The couple divorces. Karina teaches piano lessons. Richard still tours. However, Richard has just been diagnosed with ALS. At first, he only loses the ability to play with his right hand, but sooner than he imagines, his left arm too becomes immobile. With the help of an in-home health aide, he gets through the day watching movies, sipping smoothies, and taking short walks. But that period, too, is short lived as the paralysis spreads to his legs. Reluctantly Karina opens her home to him and volunteers to be his full-time caregiver. As Richard’s voice and breath begin to fail, he literally struggles to find the words to express his regret and remorse.

Genova, as in all her novels, reveals not only the physiological, but emotional trials of people dealing with a neurological disease.  Recounted in excruciating detail, these trials are a good reminder to the reader to be grateful for the petty aches and pains of our own bodies and minds. And to cherish the moments we spend with our spouses and children.

Maybe my son was on to something.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Summer Slide

Even though summer didn’t officially begin until yesterday, I feel like I’m already behind on my summer reading. Hearing this story on the radio didn't help matters. 

Browsing this list, I can’t wait to check out the latest by Michael Ondaatje, dive into the short stories of Amy Bonnaffons (one of which I recently heard on TAL), and puzzle out the “fictional feints” in a crime thriller by Sergio de la Pava.

Then there’s the summer slide. While searching for summer reading lists for the kids, I stumbled across Brightly. This site abounds with reading resources and lists (like this ever so timely one) for kids, parents, and teachers.

Want to mix it up? Check out these reading challenges...

Not sure what to read? Here are a few recommendations...

Friday, June 15, 2018


When I turned 12 or 13 my mom took me on a shopping spree that included picking out outfits at this outlet store and of course, a stop at Taylor’s bookstore. One book that made it into the bag that day, and still sits on my bookshelf, was a memoir by Jill Ker Conway. 

Conway, who would later become the first female president of Smith College, has written three memoirs. The Road from Coorain, a chronicle of a childhood spent in rural Australia, with no outlet stores in sight mind you, remains one of my favorites.

Conway died on June 1. She was 83.  This week, Fresh Air rebroadcast the interviews they’ve done with her over the years. It’s worth a listen. And her books, definitely worth a read.  

Friday, June 8, 2018

Family Life

According to Time magazine, the five BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries account for 40 percent of the world’s population and more than 25 percent of the world’s land. This week’s challenge was to read a book set in one of these five.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma opens with its 40- year-old narrator remembering the circumstances that brought his family from India to America when he was eight.

Ajay contrasts the perceived riches of life in America (“On an airplane the stewardess has to give you whatever you ask for. I’m going to ask for a baby tiger”) with the real ones (carpet, hot water from the tap, elevators).  The best luxury of all turns out to be the library.

After months of studying, Ajay recalls, his brother Birju is accepted into the Bronx Highs School of Science. The summer before he’s to enroll, the boys go to stay with their aunt. While Ajay spends his afternoons watching Gilligan’s Island, Birju prefers spending his at the neighborhood pool. A miscalculated dive, however, leaves him severely brain damaged. The rest of the novel depicts how each of his family members copes with his care.

Sharma evokes the sensory hallmarks of Ajay’s childhood:  saying goodbye to his grandparents in shadowy rooms that smelled of mothballs, drinking milk with rose syrup after afternoon naps, selling his brother’s bicycle to the barefoot milkman wearing rolled up pajamas. And he conveys volumes about the characters’ relationships with a carefully worded retort. When Ajay’s mother wants to get hearing aids, his father replies, “Why? If by mistake some good news does come for you, I’ll write it down.”

Although the novel shifts somewhat abruptly from the day to day to decades, it reminds us that in family life the more things change, the more they stay the same.