Friday, August 28, 2015

Be a Sport



My son’s favorite books to read right now are the A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy. We first discovered the series in the audio book section of the library, but since then the digital versions have been checked out on our Kindle on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. 

The books star three third grade kids: Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose. While investigating mysteries in their small town of Green Lawn, Connecticut, they come across baseball collectors, jewel thieves, and kidnapped kings. Some books have them traveling further afield to solve crimes in California, New York, Florida, and Maine.  

Elliott’s favorite character is the always starving Josh. Josh asking for food never fails to elicit a grin. In addition to the humor Roy brings to the books, he also creates original puzzles for each book. You can see the wheels turning in Elliott’s head as the suspects are introduced. He’s also curious about the (now) anachronistic details that pop up now and again. “What’s film?” he asked me after one of the characters has to reload their camera.  

Elliott has a birthday tomorrow. How he can be seven already is in itself a mystery.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa" - B. Markham



“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

So opens the movie that led me to read this book and then this one. These of course led me to read Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. Having read McLain’s The Paris Wife about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, I was eager to read her take on Beryl Markham.

Although the book opens and closes with Markham’s historic flight, the book focuses on her childhood and early adulthood and explores her relationships with both men and horses. McLain takes us back to Karen Blixen’s Africa, not through the eyes of an ex-pat, but through those of a native. As a young girl, Markham grows up alongside the children in a neighboring Kipsigis tribe. However, social conventions soon intervene, and she has to leave behind her childhood in the wild and find a way to support herself.

Whether fighting off lions, or wrestling with expectations of women in her time and place, Markham’s life is a struggle. McLain’s passionate and thrilling depiction of the struggle draws the reader in with ease. And when she has read the last page, she’ll turn back to Dinesen and Markham to read the story all over again.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Other Languages



I’ve tried to learn two languages in my life. During my Spanish phase, I subscribed to Latina magazine, listened to Shakira, and went salsa dancing every weekend. I worked in social services for migrant workers in Oregon and dated an earnest young man from El Salvador living in Texas. After grad school, I decided to teach English in Japan and so began learning Japanese.  The teachers at the junior high where I worked disappointedly commented on my “Japanese” demeanor. I think they were looking forward to meeting a more outgoing American. In both cases, I was never able to test the theory that the best way to learn a language is to fall in love since the love of my life happens to speak English – granted with a South Texas accent. However, in two books I read recently, falling in love does inspire the characters to learn a new language and consequently change the course of their lives.

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano
In the title story of this short story collection, Marciano writes about a grieving family who travels from Italy to Greece for a holiday. The older boy, Luca, gravitates towards an older Greek girl and leaves his younger sisters behind. His younger sister Emma marvels at how quickly they are able to communicate. Later in the summer, she herself becomes entranced, from afar, by two English brothers vacationing in the village. English, to her ears, sounds “authoritative, distinguished, exact.” After returning to Italy, Emma spends the next school year attending a weekly English class and obsessively listening to The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Magically, she is able to talk to the boys the next summer.  Later in the story, after recalling the story to her American husband while on a road trip, she says, “I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for those two. I wouldn’t even speak English.” Or be married to the man sitting next to her who simply asks to see the map of where they are going.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
In this middle grade novel, the protagonist Willow Chance loves gardening and the number seven. After being mistaken for the janitor due to her wardrobe choices and being accused of cheating on an achievement test that she aces, she has had little success in making new friends. After meeting an older girl, Mai, and her brother at the counseling center, Willow decides the solution to her problem is learning to speak Vietnamese. Willow accurately remarks, “I’m right now someone that other people might find interesting to observe. I’m speaking Vietnamese, which is not my ‘native tongue.’”   Little does Willow know that  the reader will find her, and Sloan's other characters, even more interesting to observe even when a tragic even leaves her speechless “in any language.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer



When the students in Mrs. Quenell’s Special Topics in English receive their journals, they have mixed emotions. However, when they start to write, they discover the journals take them to the moment in time in their lives just before tragedy struck. For the narrator, Jam, this moment is on a field with her boyfriend Reeve just before his death. Jam and the other students decide to name the world of their transported experiences. Pronounced like the zhuh in Jacques, Belzhar is a French take on Bell Jar to honor the writer they are studying, Sylvia Plath.  At first, trips to Belzhar become an obsession for the students. But as the semester progresses, they find solace not in traveling to the past, but in each other.

Meg Wolitzer, best known for her adult fiction, has written a fast-paced novel for teens.  The reader, like the students, is easily transported through the writing. Even if the cynical reader rolls her eyes at Jam’s young love, she is guiltily rewarded when she finds out the narrator has not been recounting events exactly as they occurred. That, along with a happy resolution for one of the other tragic stories, helps the book end on a sweet, rather than bittersweet, note.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Selected Shorts



A short selection of short story collections I've been delving into:

American Innovations: Stories

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories 
 
Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories