Saturday, February 28, 2009

82 (2009 #7). Memoirs of a Geisha

by Arthur Golden,
read by Elaina Erika Davis

Despite the title, this book is actually a work of fiction presented as a memoir narrated by the main character, a famous geisha named Sayuri. Now living in New York (and supposedly being interviewed, so she has an excuse to explain things), she’s looking back at her life, training for and becoming a geisha in the 30s and war years into the 50s. The story begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when nine-year-old Chiyo, who has unusual blue-gray eyes, is bought from her widowed father and sold to an okiya, or geisha house, in Kyoto.

Arthur Golden studied Japanese art and history, and in an interview he said: Tokyo...I met a young man whose father was a famous businessman and whose mother was a geisha....After returning to the U.S., I began work on a novel in which I tried to imagine this young man's childhood. Gradually I found myself more interested in the life of the mother than the son and made up my mind to write a novel about a geisha.

Golden also interviewed former geisha, among them Mineko Iwasaki, and apparently based much of Sayuri’s character on her, sparking her lawsuit which was settled out of court. The book was also made into a movie which had its own controversies.

The abridged audiobook was read by television actress Elaina Erika Davis, who also narrated the Kira-Kira audiobook. Davis did an outstanding job with Japanese accents and creating different personalities for the characters in the book, especially Sayuri's rival, the cruel geisha Hatsumomo.

However, the abridgment was terrible! Like the awful abridged version of The Other Boleyn Girl, this was also a movie tie-in. Comprising only three discs (as opposed to the unabridged version’s 15), the story has been stripped down, and unfortunately the listener can tell – I always had the feeling something was missing.

Nevertheless, the ending of the book was disappointing. I didn't buy into the supposed love story of Sayuri and “the Chairman.” I did not feel the emotion there and the Chairman was a very one-dimensional character, plain and unappealing. Therefore, despite all the interesting information about the lives of geisha, the book is not compelling enough to re-read. I’d rather read Iwasaki’s book, Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda, Lesley Downer’s Women of the Pleasure Quarters, or Liza Dalby’s insider account, Geisha.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

81 (2009 #6). Knucklehead

by Jon Scieszka

Subtitled “Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka,” this is a memoir of childhood by the Library of Congress’ first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature,children’s author Jon Scieszka. I checked it out from the local library because it was being touted for possible Newbery honors back in January. Jon grew up as the second-oldest of six brothers in a Polish Catholic family in Flint, Michigan, in the late 50s and 60s, and his father used to call them all knuckleheads.

After reading the 106-page, heavily-illustrated Knucklehead, one can see how Scieszka came up with books like The Stinky Cheese Man, Math Curse, Squids Will Be Squids,, and Baloney (Henry P.). With its comic-book-like cover, Knucklehead is aimed more at ages 9-12, also the target of Scieszka’s “Time Warp Trio” series (which now have comic-book-like covers on reissue paperbacks, in keeping with the Discovery Kids TV series of the same name).

However, I wonder if the real audience of this book is anyone who, like Scieszka (who is two years older than me), was a child in the late 50s and 60s, who also has brothers or sons (if you have only sisters and daughters, you might not get some of the humor). There was SO much in this book I could relate to – the nuns at Catholic School (and pagan babies), big families with hand-me-down special outfits and Halloween costumes, “Dick and Jane” readers, broken collarbones (my baby sister!), and playing in sewer pipes and ravines (OK, it was the neighborhood ditch in my case, but the same in that I wasn’t supposed to play there). I suspect my brothers (aka Cousin Weak Eyes and Brother Bad Aim) could relate to even more, particularly the bathroom “sword fights,” plastic army men, and model airplanes. As the oldest of five Catholic-schooled children myself, I think I remember my dad referring to all of us as knuckleheads, and I remember vacations with all seven of us piled in a station wagon.

With 38 two-to-four-page chapters and numerous family photographs, clip art, period pictures, and other relevant illustrations (report cards, x-rays, etc.), the book is an easy read for reluctant readers, and would also be a great read-aloud for any age. I can really see Boomers like me reading this to our kids (or grandkids!). Not surprisingly, it should especially appeal to boys. Scieszka also founded the non-profit literacy initiative, GUYS READ.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

80 (2009 #5). Same Kind of Different as Me

by Ron Hall & Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

This was a selection of my local book club, probably classified as “inspirational/Christian” nonfiction. I guess I’m a bit of a cynic as this is not something I would have read otherwise. It took me forever to slog through it. I found it to be preachy and rather pretentious.

It’s the true story of a wealthy white man, Ron Hall, and a homeless black man, Denver Moore, brought together by the white man’s wife, Deborah, who dies from colon and liver cancer. According to Hall (in response to a review on Amazon), “...I get nothing from the book royalties. Denver gets 50% and the Union Gospel Mission in Fort Worth, Texas gets the other 50%...Denver get [sic] 100% of his art sales and speaking fees while mine go the Union Gospel Mission in memory of Debbie..."

The book is short chapters alternately narrated by Ron and Denver. I found Denver’s to be more sincere, but was bothered by it being written in an uneducated dialect. It seemed to perpetuate stereotypes. Ron’s chapters border on insufferable – I get a little tired of so-called Christians who seem to feel the need to call attention to what they are (or are not) doing. The only really interesting parts of the book were those about Deborah’s illness.

Some of the writing in the book is lyrical (probably the work of co-writer Lynn Vincent), if a bit affected:
Deborah exported a fresh and contagious joy to the Lot. There, under the giant and ancient elm that shaded the benches, she always found some pearls hidden below the amber sea of crushed beer bottles and syringes. The pearl she found one day glistened in the smile of a grizzled street veteran who lived under a railroad trestle in a cardboard box shaped like a casket. (pp. 119-120)

The whole message of the book can be found simply by reading Denver’s last few sentences:
...I found out everybody’s different – the same kind of different as me. We’re all just regular folks walkin down the road God done set in front of us. The truth about it is, whether we is rich or poor or something in between, this earth ain’t no final restin place. So in a way, we is all homeless – just workin our way toward home. (p. 235)

The discussion questions at the back of the paperback edition of the book (also available here) seemed to be aimed more at religious groups than typical book clubs. This to me is further evidence that the best audience for this book might be Christian church classes. However, Denver has some visions and visitations from spirits that might offend more fundamentalist believers.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

79 (2009 #4). Eight Picture Books

Just before the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced on January 26, I checked out a number of books at my local county library that had been mentioned by various bloggers and polls as contenders for some of the awards. The following suggestions for the Caldecott didn’t win, although some won other awards or appeared on various “best” or “notable” lists:

The Pencil – by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated in acrylic by Bruce Ingman. Actually this book would not have been eligible for the Caldecott as neither Ahlberg nor Ingman are United States residents, but I’d seen it reviewed on many blogs. It’s an amusing, clever story of a pencil, paint brush, and eraser that come to life and create (or wipe out) a world where inanimate objects, as well as living things, ask the pencil to give them a name (check out the ant on the bottom right of the next-to-last two-page color spread!).

Jumpy Jack and Googily –by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Sophie Blackall with Chinese ink and watercolor on paper, named to School Library Journal’s Best [picture] Books 2008 list. Jumpy Jack the snail is terrified there are monsters everywhere despite the reassuring words and actions of his friend Googily, who is a…guess. Jumpy Jack has rather big goggle eyes himself and is a bit scary. The illustrations are amusing and the story is rather tongue-in-cheek, especially for the grown-up reading it aloud.

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek – by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated in watercolor and pen-and-ink by John Hendrix. This is historical fiction based on apparently true stories told by Lincoln’s boyhood friend and neighbor, Benjamin Austin Gollaher. In Knob Creek, Kentucky in 1816, seven-year-old Lincoln falls in a creek and is rescued by Gollaher. With the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth occurring this year, this ALA Notable Children’s Book for 2009 is timely, and written and illustrated in a cartoon-like style that will appeal to children.

That Book Woman2008 Cuffie honorable mention for best picture book, by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small in ink, watercolor, and pastel chalk. Inspired by the real Pack Horse Librarians, known as “book women” in Kentucky Appalachia in the 1930s, this is a heartwarming story of a boy whose admiration for these traveling librarians encourages him to learn to read. A must for book lovers!

In a Blue Room - written by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Tricia Tusa in ink, watercolor, and gouache. Although a 2009 Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, this tale of a little girl who wants everything to be blue at bedtime was disappointing, both the pictures and the story line.

The Butter Man - written by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou, illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli in gouache. While I liked the depiction of life in the High Atlas Mountains of Moracco, particularly the author’s note and glossary at the end (and the yummy descriptions of couscous), the illustrations of this 2009 Zolotow Highly Commended Title were too childlike and did not really portray the culture described in the book.

Before John Was a Jazz Giant - written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls with acrylic, pencil, and collage. This picture book biography of saxophonist John Coltrane was an ALA Notable Children’s Book for 2009 and a 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. It makes a great point in the text (you have to listen before you can make music) and has an informative author’s note and suggestions for further reading and listening at the end.

Silent Music - written and illustrated by James Rumford in mixed media, using pencil and charcoal drawings enchanced on the computer, and much of the author’s own calligraphy. This book was an ALA Notable Children’s Book for 2009 and a 2009 Charlotte Zolotow honor book. It’s a simple story of how young Ali uses calligraphy to distract himself from the bombing of Baghdad in 2003, with a little information on famous calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta'simi who did the same during the Mongol invasion in 1258.

There’s also a message, as Ali says, “It’s funny how easily my pen glides down the long, sweeping hooks of the word HARB— stubbornly it resists me when I make the difficult waves and slanted staff of SALAM—peace...” This is combined with an Escher-like tessellation where birds break out of the interlocking geometric pattern and fly away.

I LOVED the illustrations in this book! From the copyright page, they are “inspired by the many photos posted on the Web by photographers and American service personnel in Iraq.” They are collages of jewel-tone floral and geometric designs that echo Moorish tile designs, as well as the inclusion of silhouettes and Iraqi stamps, money and postcards, set on desert-colored backgrounds. Calligraphy Arabic words, translated in places (and not in others), are sometimes part of the background or clothing. Ali and his family are portrayed lovingly (I loved the picture of Ali’s father shaving). This is a gorgeous book – too bad it was not recognized by the Caldecott committee.