Sunday, December 12, 2010


So, I've been incredibly lax about updating, but in the next few weeks expect some posts on the following books I've finished:

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Dancing on the Edge
The Penderwicks
along with a few others...

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

I wasn't sure what to expect of this 1959 Newberry award winner.  Knowing only that it was a historical novel from the American colonial period, I dove in.  I was surprised at how quickly the narrative moved and how attached I became to the central character Kit.

Kit is a young woman from Barbados fallen on hard times.  In a rash attempt to escape an unwanted marriage to a much older man, she abandons her tropical home for an unforgiving shore in colonial Connecticut.  Inserting herself into her Aunt and Uncle's (literally) Puritanical society is not easy for the free-spirited young girl.

But, I was surprised at the growth that Speare allowed her character and the richness the author gave to all her characters.  So many times children's literature can trend towards heavy-handed stereotyping in the characters.  Over the top characterization of "good" and "bad" characters was happily absent from this.  That is not to say that Speare didn't have some characters who were "bad".  But I liked that those characters were minor and not as central to the plot.

In the end, I will admit that the ending is one you can see coming a mile away, but when it did finally arrive, I enjoyed it none the less.  All the characters end happily and in a rightful place for their needs.  There is no disappointing open ending or replication of life's own lack of closure.  All in all, Speare's likable characters and well constructed story were enjoyable without being too preachy/life's lessony.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan's 2006 National Book Award winner for Nonfiction came in my favorite form of non-fiction.  His history of the great American Dust Bowl didn't read like a history, but like a disturbing and homey narrative. 

Egan artfully marries oral histories collected from survivors with his non-fiction factual text to bring the subject alive.  Knowing only surface information about the Dust Bowl (mostly from Grapes of Wrath), I knew little of what to expect of this history.

The text outlines most expertly the lead up to one of the greatest man-made natural disasters of all time.  Egan does not attempt to sugar coat or protect any of the agencies or groups involved in the destruction of the natural prairie of the high plains.  Yet, the personal histories of the ranchers and the settlers of the area keep the book from becoming overly preachy or accusatory.  There is a human face to both the conservators and the destructors in the book. 

I also enjoyed that he provided insightful looks into adjacent and supplementary veins of history that bring a richness to the history  he tells without bogging down his central subject with too much extra information.

I would recommend this well balanced (if frightening) history to anyone, whether or not they enjoy non-fiction writing.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

This 1958 Pulitzer Prize winner centers around Jay Follet and the void his sudden death leaves in his family.  Set in Knoxville in the early part of the 20th century, the narrative skips back and forth between Jay (pre-mortem), his wife, his young son, his wife's spinster aunt, and his young son (with a few other characters thrown in there for effect).

Agee's prose is eloquent and moving at times.  Yet I wonder if I would have read the book differently and gotten a different sense from it had I not read the introduction first.  The author of the introduction reveals that this book was not finished at the time of Agee's death (how fitting to his subject).  The book had not been altered from the final version submitted by Agee and the chapters on the end of the novel had not yet been placed where they were meant to ultimately go. 

In knowing this, I did feel a sense of the novel not really being finished.  There were times when the narrative felt a little too bloated or too frenetic.  I don't know if that was me reading too far into the prose, or trying deliberately to find those situations.  Either way, I did leave the novel with a sense of unease, like the story was not fully formed.

Agee's characters were satisfyingly human though, he expertly portrayed each one's inner monologue of doubt, anger, insecurity, and more.  I enjoyed the character studies of each one and would have loved to see them more polished.  As it was, they did each have a very raw emotional quality to them that was heartbreaking and real.

Overall impression: great characters, if a little unfinished.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Onion John by Joseph Krumgold

A few months ago, I felt that I had read the book version of condensed soup.  I now feel after reading the 1960 Newberry winner I have found the literary version of Leave It to Beaver.  Krumgold chronicles Andy, a plucky 12 year old boy (the Beave) living in Serenity, NY in the 1950s.  Andy's dad runs the local hardware store and is a community leader in the Rotary club.  Baseball, Americana, Roll-up-the-sleeves and stick-to-it-ness abound.  The conflict in this slice of Apple pie narrative comes in the form of Andy's friendship with the titular character, Onion John.

Onion John is the lovable, vaguely ethnic eccentric of Serenity.  Also vaguely middle aged, Onion John is a staple in the community, partitioned off from the town by his inability to clearly speak English and also because of his off beat notions and practices.  Onion John attempts to make gold from lead and believes in all manner of semi-religious rituals. 

At the top of the novel, Andy learns how to decipher Onion John's speech and thus opens the door to all sorts of hijinks and misunderstandings.  Until this new communication line opened with Onion John, Andy was happily growing in the shadow of his father's dreams.  MIT and NASA were in his future.  Andy's father didn't really take his son's wants and needs into consideration.

In a nutshell: Andy befriends Onion John and starts participating in some of his off beat rituals.  Andy's father (Andy Sr.) gets concerned that Andy is losing site of the MIT "dream" (and getting perhaps a bit jealous of Andy's new friend).  Andy's father intervenes in his son's friendship with Onion John and tries to main stream the lovable immigrant.  Onion John (who has previously been living in a house he built himself) can't deal with the new way of living and new-fangled house.  Onion John accidentally burns his new house down.  Andy can't deal with the guilt he feels.  Andy and Onion John plan to run away.  Onion John backs out.  Andy Jr. and Andy Sr. have a heart to heart.  MIT plans put on hold until Andy Jr. decides for himself.  "Awwww" moment ensues.

Fluffernutter sandwiches and Tang will be offered later.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

White Noise by Don DeLillo

How to start my several weeks overdue review of Don DeLillo's 1985 National Book Award Winner?  I found myself marking pages throughout the book to cycle back and re-read DeLillo's amazing prose.  His look at an educated and somewhat desperate middle class family was rich and scarily true to our own times. 

Even though it was written in the 1980s, DeLillo's characters operate in a world driven by catch phrases, hollow status and the warm glow of the television.  Even the "chemical event" which drives much of the novel would not be out of place on any current news channel.

Following a professor at a small liberal arts college and his almost cliched mixed family as their lives slowly but inevitably unravel, DeLillo digs away at the initial image of a well functioning existence.  Jack and Babette and their mixed brood of children assembled from various marriages are buffeted on all fronts by mass media culture, fear-mongering, and their own need for each other.  I feel like I can't even begin to describe the way DeLillo has encapsulated the bubble of middle class (we're trapped in our own education and need for security).

I'm sure that I could go on for many pages about the love I have for this book and how well crafted it is.  But I won't bore anyone.  :) I just recommend that you go read it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

I finished The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens and Booker Prize Winner in 1970 a few weeks ago. So my post is a bit overdue. Rubens chronicles the Zweck family, a tight-knit and phenomenally dysfunctional family living in London and struggling with a number of past and present family dramas. Rabbi Abraham Zweck is the patriarch and a British immigrant. The story hop-scotches between his perspective, his unmarried daughter Bella's and his drug addicted son Norman. The three main Zwecks slowly peel back the layers of their stormy family history through their musings and recollections.

Abraham's wife was once the glue that anchored the family together with her love of tradition and her command of guilt and need. In fact, Rubens explores that delicate family balance of need, guilt, love and resentment that has fallen so far out of whack for the Zwecks.

Norman, a linguistic genius from an early age and once great lawyer taxes his father and sister heavily with his drug addiction and the hallucinations it brings. Their decision to admit him to a mental hospital acts as a catalyst for all of them emotionally. They each then need to recall the past wrongs and wrong choices of their lives. Rubens unfolds their family story from different perspectives and keeps her reader off balance by revealing new facts and tainting the stories with the different remembrances.

Yet, through it all, she tells mostly the story of family and the need and dependence that family ties create. Father, son, and daughters all responded to mother's need and in their resentment, formed needs and guilt of their own.

I thought it was a masterfully told family drama.