Friday, September 22, 2017

The Animators

Think of The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker as a grittier Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell). Or perhaps a more sharply focused take on The Interestings (by Meg Wolitzer).

While I was reading it, I kept picturing a cartoon sequence from the (amazing) Amazon series Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.

In Episode 7 (season 201), bongo drums start playing a 70s beat as one of the main characters, Ranger, ruminates on puberty. “If nature puts you at the back of the pack, you do anything you can to get to the front.” He adds, “First you get the hair, then you get the power, then you get the respect.”





In Whitaker’s work, Mel and Sharon meet in a college arts program. Discovering a mutual affinity for drawing and a love of obscure comics, they begin collaborating. When their film of Mel’s coming-of-age story becomes a word-of-mouth sensation, they begin pondering their next project. An unexpected stroke forces them to pause. 

During her recovery, Sharon opens up about a traumatic event she experienced as a child. When she is well enough, the two make a trip to Kentucky to introduce Mel to her family and the surroundings that shaped her. The two begin animating Sharon’s story. However, in some ways, the project will prove to be even more damaging than her stroke.

Through Mel and Sharon's stories, Whitaker examines the intersection of memoir, truth, and fiction. Does the storyteller, regardless of medium, have the right to reveal the lives of others central to the story? She also looks at the healing process. When our identity is tied to what we do, what happens when our abilities are changed in some way?

Read an excerpt here.


Friday, September 15, 2017

“After the initial kerplunk”

This week’s challenge was to read a collection of stories by a woman. Having loved her novel and memoir, I picked up Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken.

In the title story, Wes and Laura worry their pre-teen daughter Helen is growing up too fast. The family decides (as one does) to take a spur of the moment summer trip to Paris. “The plan was to disrupt their lives, a jolt to Helen’s system before school started again in the fall…Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French.” And it appears it has, as Helen discovers an ease in communicating with taxi drivers and food vendors in the French she has learned in school.

The family slowly starts to relax into the rhythm of their days and the parents begin letting their daughters venture out on afternoon excursions by themselves. However, they learn they’ve let their guard down too soon when the phone rings in the middle of the night. A nurse tells them Helen is in the ICU.

Days turn to weeks, and eventually the family decides to send Laura and their youngest daughter back to the States. As Wes watches his daughter slowly, painfully recover, he turns to art as therapy. And we are left wondering who needs more healing.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the interview in the back between the author, McCracken, and Ann Patchett. Writers and friends, the two discuss memoirs, the thought process behind organizing the collection in this book, and book prizes.

Find suggestions for more story collections here.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Serafina's Promise

Today is a repost in honor of #internationalliteracyday and the storms ravaging the Caribbean.

Serafina's Promise by Ann E Burg

Serafina's chore each morning is to collect water for her parents and grandmother:

"One foot forward-
stop.
The other foot forward-
stop." 


This is only the first of many chores she faces growing up in rural Haiti.

After meeting the young doctor that takes care of her baby brother, Serafina decides that she too wants to become a doctor when she grows up. First, she must figure out a way to ask her parents to send her to school. She approaches her father and together they make a plan. However, nature decides to throw several obstacles in their way. 

Told in verse, the story drums with the beat of the parade Serafina watches with her father, rushes with the waters of the flood she flees with her mother, and shines with the hope she sees in the stars. 

After my daughter and I both read the book, we discussed it using the questions we found here. We both admitted to crying through most of Part III of the book. And we both agreed that we are very fortunate to be able to go to school. As Serafina says, "Education is the road to freedom." My daughter interpreted that to mean, "If we go to school, we can be whatever we want."

One foot forward.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Then the floods came

One morning I was awakened by a knock on my door. I opened it to find some very serious officials wearing rain gear. Grabbing my passport and purse, I accompanied them up the hill to the community center. Torrential rains had caused the river to flood the first floor of my apartment building my second week in Japan.

At the community center, I clumsily tried to make onigiri with the women of the town, who were tasked with feeding the volunteer firefighter brigade. At one point, later that evening, one of the women motioned for me to come with her. She invited me to her house for tea, and we eventually worked out her sons were students at the junior high and elementary schools where I was to be an assistant English teacher.

I was allowed to return to my apartment, picking my way through the mud that now filled the foyer. It would take weeks for the clean-up, but in the meantime Junko and her family checked up on me and helped introduce me to others in the community.

As the waters recede in Texas and Louisiana (and Bangladesh, India, and Nepal), and recovery proceeds, my hope is those communities are  strengthened, not torn apart. And strangers who encountered each other by happenstance and tragedy become neighbors.

Although there have been plenty of real-life Houston heroes in the news this week, here’s a list to direct you to some fictional ones as well. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Women in Translation

This week’s challenge was to read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. 

Turning to Powell’s, my trusty purveyor of used books, I discovered a women in translation sale. Sold.

Liu Xia’s collection of poems, Empty Chairs, spans the years 1983-2013. Under house arrest after her husband, now deceased, was imprisoned, she is described as a poet who has “turned from a bird into a tree, her feathers becoming white and withered.”

From “One Bird Then Another”:

Back then,
we were always talking
about the bird. Not knowing
where it came from – the bird,
the bird – it brought us
warmth and laughter.

From “How It Stands”:

Why draw a tree?
I like how it stands.
Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Shore Excursion

Recently, I dropped off my brother and his family at a Seattle port for an Alaskan cruise. I started feeling a little claustrophobic seeing the masses of people queuing up to board with two to three suitcases a piece. I kept seeing the images of this disaster as I took in the truly massive ship with lifeboats ringing the sides in plain sight. My brother and his family, by the way, had a wonderful time.

Therefore, I was curious to pick up Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy when I saw the words “holiday cruise” and “misfortune” in its synopsis.

Liv and Nora are cousins, as close as sisters. Since Nora is having a bad time of it after her mom dies, Liv decides their two families should go on a Central American cruise for Christmas.

Skeptical at first, the adults start to enjoy themselves.  Befriending a glamourous Argentinian couple Camila and Gunther, relaxing while the kids play in Kids' Club or swim with their new friends, Liv congratulates herself for arranging the trip. But even the ship’s myriad amusements grow to be too much of the same. At the next port, the moms decide to take the kids on a zip-lining adventure with a local guide while the dads golf at a club with one of Gunther’s friends.

When the tire on the guide’s car blows out, everyone is a little rattled, but unharmed. Trying to salvage the day, the guide, Pedro, offers to take them to a local swimming hole. Liv makes sure she has her son Sebastian’s insulin pump and the sunscreen, and the kids and moms trek down to the water.

What happens next is a series of bad decisions that are equally thrilling and frustrating in the reading. Just like you might yell at the young girl on the screen not to go in the basement, you’ll want to tell the kids to stay put, don’t get in the van, don’t go upstairs, don’t get on the train.

Meanwhile, Noemi who has been living with her grandmother in Ecuador, finds out one morning her uncle has arrived to take her to New York to her parents. Their journey intersects with that of the missing kids, juxtaposing the despair of the poor with that of the privileged.


The novel evokes Ann Patchett’s  Bel Canto, provoking empathy for both kidnappers and captives. It’s only fitting that Patchett has given this novel a glowing book jacket review, “smart and thrilling and impossible to put down.” Exactly. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Sibling Rivalry

I’m reliving my childhood. My tormentor, aka younger brother, loved to sneak into my room and string my Fozzie Bear stuffed animal onto the cord of my ceiling fan. I would turn red with range, only fueling his fun, and plot my revenge.

My daughter (who just turned twelve) prefers screaming bloody murder when she finds that her carefully constructed toyscape has been destroyed or her phone’s wallpaper has been changed by her little brother.

Most of the time, like my brother and I did, they do get along and play well together. One of the most enjoyable conversations I overhear while they’re in the backseat of the car is a shared love of certain book series.

Roald Dahl books fly back and forth from their rooms at bedtime. The Giver Quartet is on its way. So far, my son has only read the first one, but my daughter has been encouraging him to read the others.

The following two series, however, are ones they’ve both read, and argued about, recounted favorite scenes from, and figured how to reserve at the school library.

Myth-O-Mania by Kate McMullan
The nine books in this series are narrated by Hades, King of the Underworld. Trying to dispel the “myths” (pun intended) promulgated by his brother Zeus, he retells each story with his own unique twist. My son’s favorite is Say Cheese, Medusa! My daughter likes Phone Home, Persephone!

The True Story of… by Liesl Shurtliff
The three books (so far) of this series are Rump, Jack, and Red.  “It’s like you took a fairy tale and modernized it, pretty much,” my daughter said. But more exciting. And funnier. My son recommends Rump. My daughter’s favorite is Jack