Thursday, October 30, 2008

61. Tears of the Desert

by Halima Bashir
with Damien Louis

Subtitled “A Memoir of Survival in Darfur,” this Darfur memoir was better than The Translator, mostly because Bashir begins with her childhood as a member of the fierce Zaghawa tribe in Sudan. Her father is the wealthiest man in the village – they have a television, two radios, and a Land Rover – but Bashir is mostly fortunate in that he has more enlightened attitudes about his daughter. He sends her to an Arab school in a nearby town, where she defies the Arab teachers and students and reaches the top of the class, ultimately qualifying for college and medical school. Bashir’s youth sounds almost idyllic, except for female circumcision at age 8 (described in horrifying detail), incomprehensively directed by her own mother and grandmother.

At age 24, Bashir becomes her tribe’s first qualified doctor. After treating rebel fighters, the government sends her to a remote village, where she treats a school full of girls raped by the dreaded Janjaweed, the “devil horsemen” Arab fighters. Bashir experiences even more horror when the Janjaweed gang-rape her and attack her home village. Not surprisingly, she ends up seeking asylum in England where she writes this book.

The book has a glossary of Arabic and Zaghawa terms at the end, but oddly enough it does not define Janjaweed, and the terms are not in alphabetical order (in this advance reader edition, courtesy of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program). The book would also benefit from a map and from dates in the chapter headings. An author’s note at the beginning indicates that Bashir was born in 1979, but it gets tiresome trying to do the math and figure out the years events are occurring with sometimes-there sometimes-not ages of Bashir.

The book reads like a novel, probably due to co-writer Damien Lewis, a BBC reporter who has covered conflicts in Africa for many years. This book gave me a much better picture of what is going on in Darfur today.

Monday, October 27, 2008

60. Nineteen Minutes

by Jodi Picoult

I read this one for my local book club. Once again Picoult tackles an issue in the news, this time school shootings. The nineteen minutes of the title is the amount of time it takes bullied Peter Houghton to kill ten at his high school. This is the story of that event, what led up to it, and the aftermath. Picoult creates memorable characters: Peter, his midwife mother Lacy and professor father Lewis, his former best friend Josie Cormier, and her mother Alex, a judge who used to be friends with Lacy. Characters from some of Picoult's previous books (ones I haven't read) reappear: defense lawyer Jordan McAfee and investigating cop Patrick Ducharme.

Picoult's writing made me really care about and feel empathy for Peter, a loner who is bullied to extremes by everyone, including the older brother his parents idolized, who was killed by a drunken driver a year earlier. Although I could not excuse what Peter did, I could understand how he was driven to it. I was also able to sympathize with Josie, the girl on the fringe of the "in" crowd, bullied herself by her popular jock boyfriend, being cruel to her old friend Peter in order to fit in, feeling guilty about it, but worried that if she doesn't, her so-called friends will turn on her.

The character who most touched me was Lacy, Peter's mom, wondering what it was she did "wrong." I saw a mother like me who did the best she could, making some mistakes along the way, whose only real error was blindness towards the cruelty of her oldest son. I loved this passage near the end of the book:
Everyone would remember Peter for nineteen minutes of his life, but what about the other nine million? Lacy would have to be the keeper of those, because it was the only way for that part of Peter to stay alive. For every recollection of him that involved a bullet or a scream, she would have a hundred others: of a little boy splashing in a pond, or riding a bicycle for the first time, or waving from the top of a jungle gym. Of a kiss good night, or a crayoned Mother's Day card, or a voice off-key in the shower. She would string them together—the moments when her child had been just like any other people's. She would wear them, precious pearls, every day of her life; because if she lost them, then the boy she had loved and raised and known would really be gone.
Like the other Picoult novel I read, My Sister's Keeper, this story has a twist near the end, unlike that other book, this twist is believable. The book makes the reader consider the issues of bullying, high school peer pressure, the quest to be popular, and violent video games. Recommended.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

59. Johnny Tremain

by Esther Forbes
read by Grace Conlin

I remember my son’s fifth grade teacher reading this book aloud to his class (this would have been a little over ten years ago). I’d hear snippets when doing volunteer work in the classroom, and I’d always wanted to read the whole book. As it is available in unabridged audiobook format and is the 1944 Newbery winner, I recently purchased a copy for my library. Had to wait a while to listen to it – the first copy we received had damage to nearly all of its discs.

The replacements finally came in and I listened to it over the past couple weeks. Narrator Grace Conlin did an excellent job with pacing and voicing. And what a terrific story!

The title character ages from 14 to 16 in the book, set in Boston in 1773-1775. At the beginning, he is an orphan apprenticed to a silversmith. A life-altering accident there cripples his hand and leads to his becoming a “horse boy” and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and various icons of the American Revolution, including Paul Revere, John Hancock, Sam and John Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and James Otis. Johnny participates in the Boston Tea Party and the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Forbes also won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize in history for her biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. In her Newbery acceptance speech, she said that while working on that biography, “I became interested in the life of the apprentices...of Boston.” Johnny became the real horse boy “who brought word to Paul Revere that the British intended to march out of Boston on the night of the 18th of April in ’75.” Johnny’s nemesis, Dove, becomes one of the “horse boys of the British officers” who “let slip the information that troops were being sent out that very night.” This was “the nucleus from which a story might grow. But I was still busy on Paul Revere. That was not the moment to go off on tangents...I said to myself, “Sometime...”

“Sometime” was shortly after Pearl Harbor, when Forbes saw parallels between the American Revolution and World War II, when “boys and girls are by the very fact of war closer now spiritually, psychologically, to this earlier generation....I also wanted to show that these earlier boys were conscious of what they were fighting for and that is was something which they believed was worth more than their own lives. And to show that many of the issues at stake in this war are the same as in the earlier one.”

The book is sometimes accused of being pro-war. Instead, I see balance. In her acceptance speech, Forbes speaks of the British occupation of Boston:
In the papers every day were stories of similar occupation of European cities. The boys and girls of the age I made Johnny Tremain were reading of the treatment Norwegians, Dutchmen, Poles and Frenchmen were enduring under the Nazis. But look back at the British in Boston. Where were the firing squads, the hostages, the concentration camps?...It seemed to me that too often our schools have held up the British Redcoats as ogres. From everything I could read of the period, it seemed to me that their occupation of Boston from 1774 to 1776 was as humane a military rule as any one could possibly imagine. The contrast between the way the British treated the civilian population at that time and what the Nazis are doing today is startling.

Throughout the book there are examples of Johnny recognizing the good sides of both the British soldiers and the Tory colonists. Johnny also experiences the negative aspects of war, with the deaths of his friend Rab and of Pumpkin, the British soldier Johnny tries to help to desert.

M. Sarah Smedman, in “Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction” (in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature, Vol I, , 1985, pp. 89-90) says the inspiration for Johnny may have come right out of Forbes’ Pulitzer-winning biography. Revere’s father, Apollos Rivoire, was a Huguenot who escaped their persecution in France (Johnny’s father is French). He emigrated alone to Boston at age 13 and was apprenticed to a goldsmith. Johnny Tileston, the longtime master of the North Writing School in Boston and a likely classmate of Revere when a pupil there, “had a deformed hand, drawn together like a bird’s beak” (Revere, p. 28). Forbes used diaries and other primary sources of real 18th-century Boston apprentices to paint a credible picture of the lives of Johnny and other apprentices.

Hamida Bosmajian also made an interesting observation in her article, “The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain” (The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 13, 1989, p. 61-62). “Johnny’s two French names are very meaningful: La-tour implies journey and circle, Tre-main suggests three-handedness – a sound hand, a scarred and twisted hand, a hand set straight.”

This coming-of-age novel is chock-full of such symbolism, as well as balanced history and characters, and great vocabulary (both 18th and 20th century). It’s rated at fifth-grade reading level and would be appropriate for that age and older, especially students studying the American Revolution. I highly recommend this book.

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project]

Sunday, October 19, 2008

58. Sweetsmoke

by David Fuller

I received this advanced reading copy as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. It’s the story of a 30-year-old slave named Cassius Howard, a carpenter on the Sweetsmoke tobacco plantation in Virginia. It starts on July 1, 1862, and all of the action takes place over the next three months, ending shortly after the Civil War Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg in September of that year.

The plot centers on a mystery – Cassius is trying to figure out who killed free black Emoline Justice, who took taught Cassius to read and write. She took care of him when his master, Hoke Howard, had him whipped him severely when he tried to run away five years earlier, after his wife commits suicide when her infant son is sold away.

The strength of the novel is in the depiction of slavery during this period, as well as the description of the aforementioned battle. According to author David Fuller (a screenwriter), he did over eight years of research “on the subjects of slavery, America in the 1800s, the Civil War, particularly Antietam, and other related subjects like tobacco and the currency of the time.” It shows. Fuller has painted slaves and slaveholders not as the usual caricatures, but as real people with emotions, regrets, flaws, fears, and foibles. His descriptions of the settings and events of his story made me feel as though I was actually there.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly that set in the Civil War era, or anyone who would like to learn more about that “peculiar institution.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

57. The Bronze Bow

by Elizabeth George Speare
read by Mary Woods

Let me first say that I really liked this 1962 Newbery winner, and I wasn’t expecting I would. I’m a lazy Catholic who leans more towards Unitarian Universalist than fundamentalist/conservative Christian. Set during the time of Jesus, the main character, an 18-year-old Galilean named Daniel bar Jamin, fled his home and blacksmith master five years before and has been living on a nearby mountain with outlaws who are supposedly preparing for the day the Jews will rise up against their Roman masters. Daniel’s hatred of the Romans is especially strong, given that they crucified his father, which led to his mother’s death and younger sister Leah’s regression into fear and solitude.

As the book opens, Daniel meets a brother and sister, Joel and Malthace (also called Thacia) who become a major part of the story, as does his friend Simon the Zealot, who becomes a disciple of Jesus. Daniel eventually meets Jesus and it ultimately changes his life. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story, with the additional message of love and peace over hate and war.

The title of the book comes from Psalm 18, verse 34 (also 2 Samuel 22:35): “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” (p. 87). Daniel uses a drawing of a bronze bow as a sign to Joel and Thacia that he is hiding in their house in Capernaum. The verse becomes a touchstone for Daniel and a metaphor for his own internal struggle.

Written at a fifth-to-sixth grade reading level, the content is most appropriate for those ages and up. Narrator Mary Woods does a good job creating individual characterizations by voice without resorting to caricatures or accents.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Speare explained that she wrote the book while teaching Sunday school because she
longed to lift the personality of Jesus off the flat and lifeless pages of our textbook. I wanted to give my pupils, and others like them, a glimpse of the divided and turbulent society of Palestine, an occupied country with many parallels in our own day. And I wanted to stir in them some personal sharing of what must have been the response of boys and girls who actually saw and heard the Carpenter from Nazareth….I longed to have them see that the preacher who walked the hills of Galilee was not a mythical figure, but a compelling and dynamic leader, a hero to whom a boy in any age would gladly offer all his loyalty.

Reading this (and the rest of her speech), it’s not surprising to learn that the book has been challenged when used as part of the curriculum in public schools. While not anti-Semitic or demeaning toward Jews, critics said it glorifies Christianity while portraying Judaism and its rabbis in a negative light.

Recently, a group of parents in San Rafael, California, was able to convince their public school district to drop the book as required reading in seventh grade in a unit on ancient Rome (but had no problems with the book being in the library). After reading the many links on their website, I can understand their position. As much as I liked this book and would recommend it to others, and don’t think it should ever be removed from any library, I believe it should be optional supplemental reading rather than required in public schools.

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Monday, October 06, 2008

56. The Fire

by Katherine Neville

I believe I received this advance reader’s edition of The Fire from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program because my LibraryThing library includes The Eight, Neville’s predecessor to The Fire. The Eight was originally published 20 years ago and at the time was quite unique – a sort of historical fiction/mystery/suspense/thriller interlaced with legend and was hard to classify by genre. Since then there have been similar books: The Da Vinci Code (which I hated) and the like.

I read The Eight with my book club in 2002. I don’t remember a lot of the details, and I didn’t review it, but I gave it four stars. I thought about re-reading The Eight before reading The Fire, but neither my university library nor my local county library had a copy, and there wasn’t time to do an interlibrary loan. In retrospect, I think it would have helped to re-read it. While The Fire can stand alone, there are parts that might make more sense with a fresh knowledge of The Eight. In particular, The Fire seems to assume that the reader knows all about “The Game” from The Eight and provides little explanation of it. It might also help to know more about the real game of chess—I know very little.

Structured like The Eight, the intertwining stories in The Fire take place in 1822 and 2003, approximately 22-32 years after the events in The Eight. I found the story set in the past to be weak and unbelievable. The two main characters in it are supposedly the offspring of Lord Byron and Talleyrand respectively. Other figures from history, such as Jefferson, Careme, and Ali Pasha, make improbable appearances. They and others often tell long “tales” in both the modern and historical stories that allow the author to insert a lot of her research detail, but are a poor substitute for plot action or real dialogue.

Indeed, at 435 pages, the book has way too much unnecessary detail. Besides alchemy and puzzles, in her acknowledgements, the author lists these other research topics: Albania, aviation, Aleutians, Baghdad, Basques, chess, cooking, Indians/Native Americans, Islam, Middle East, Far East, mathematics, mythology, archetypes, memory and perception, Russia, volcanoes and geysers, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest, the U.S. Capitol, esoteric architecture, astrology, Freemasonry, the design of Washington DC, and Dumbarton Oaks. It felt like the book was written to fit in all the research, not the other way around.

Alex, the narrator and main character of the 2003 segments, aka Xie, daughter of two of the main characters in The Eight, was passive and reactive. She can quickly solve anagrams and other puzzles, but that's about it. There are too many other characters and none of them are well-developed either. The end of the book is disappointing; we’re left hanging with many of these characters with no idea what has happened to them. I hope this does not portend yet another sequel incorporating yet more unlikely involvement of real historical personages. I doubt it would be worth another 20-year wait.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

55. The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

I read this book for an online book discussion. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter a number of years ago, I was looking forward to Tan’s first book. While I can see why it is often studied on college campuses, I found it less enjoyable. I think it was the structure of the novel. The seven narrators, six of whom tell two stories each and one (June) who tells four (her dead mother’s stories and her own), were sometimes hard to follow. I think I would have preferred each mother-daughter pair’s of stories more in sequence, as it was difficult at times to tell who was who.

The mothers’ stories were more intriguing (and heartbreaking), reflecting their early lives in China in times of great upheaval in the 1940s, before emigrating around 1949. Nearly forty years later, their American-born daughters are in their late 20s and early 30s, going through career and man problems in San Francisco, the most interesting aspect of their stories being the cultural clash in their relationships with their mothers.

This collection of short stories reflects the author’s real life, for like June’s mother Suyuan, Tan’s mother also fled China leaving children from her first marriage behind. Tan’s grandmother had a son taken from her and eventually committed suicide, as An-mei Hsu’s mother did. Tan’s mother had high expectations of her (she wanted her to be a neurosurgeon by profession with the "hobby" of concert pianist), and their relationship was rocky. This last, the uneasy mother-daughter relationships but ultimate mother-daughter love, gives The Joy Luck Club its universality.