Hope In the Dark by Rebecca Solnit – A Book Review

It so happened that on the morning of January 13th, I rode in my car and heard Rebecca Solnit on the NPR program entitled On the Media.  She read an excerpt from her 2004 book called Hope In the Dark.  Her reading, as well as her subsequent interview, convinced me that I had to experience the work for myself.

She begins with a quote from Virginia Woolf during WWI that says, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”  Solnit goes on to clarify that, in this case, darkness does not equate disaster, it merely reminds us that the future is ultimately unknown.

These are troubling times, and it is by no accident that this book, which is well over ten years old, is experiencing a resurgence.  Hope In the Dark illustrates some horrific calamities of the late 20th Century, but it also goes on to discuss how those disasters served as a catalyst to change, real change—positive change.  It also spends a great deal of time illustrating that the most potent of such change came through the efforts of people, regular citizens, standing up, taking action, and making their voices heard.

And even though some of these events may seem dated, if you read carefully enough, you’ll realize that the specific things she’s focusing upon absolutely have an effect on today’s local and global political climate, and, well, meteorological climate for that matter!

It is with great satisfaction that I read this book even as the Women’s March in Washington and throughout the world ensued.  It proved that what she said then is undeniably applicable today.  Our peaceful action speaks volumes; our voices can and will be heard.

Many of us feel hopeless today, but this book will instill faith in your fellow citizen … and yourself.  It will inspire you to do something, no matter how small, and to make your voice resonate.  It will, in the end, help you to realize that the future is dark, but, as Solnit points out, many things grow in the dark, things that later offer both beauty and sustenance.

We have the power to make our own story; we have the means to create our own future.

(If you’d like to listen to Solnit’s appearance during On the Media, visit this link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/rebecca-solnit-hope-lies-and-making-change/)

 

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Moonglow by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

While I admit that Michael Chabon is my favorite author and that I’ll read anything he publishes, I won’t go so far as to say that I love every single thing he releases.  Gentlemen 0f the Road missed the mark for me, and Telegraph Avenue simply did not connect to my soul like I thought it would.

On the other hand, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the book I name when someone asks for my ultimate favorite.  Nearly all of Chabon’s books are the perfect blend of writing prowess and narrative charisma.  He not only writes engaging, relatable stories, but he writes them better from a technical aspect than nearly anyone other contemporary author out there.

So, with all that being said, Moonglow is my second favorite book by Michael Chabon.

Let me tell you a little bit about the plot without spoiling too much.  Essentially, in 1989, Chabon visited his dying grandfather.  Terminal, Chabon’s mother transported the grandfather from his home in Florida to her home in Oakland.  There, while the grandfather fought against death and the painkillers flooding his system, the grandfather did something which had before proven a rare occurrence – he spoke … at great length.

Chabon learned more about his grandfather in that last week of his life than all the years previous.  He learned of his grandfather’s misspent youth, his grandfather’s time in the war, his grandfather’s prison stay, his grandfather’s kinship with the stars, his grandfather’s struggles with fatherhood, his grandfather’s last months in Florida, his grandfather’s obsession with rockets, as well as his grandfather’s passionate love story regarding his grandmother.

Make no mistake, however, this story is not just about the grandfather.  The grandmother quickly becomes a star in this book as well.  Mysterious, emotional, brave, witty, beautiful, and ultimately unbalanced, Chabon’s grandmother is not what she seems – not to Chabon’s grandfather, his mother, or even to the grandmother herself.  In fact, in the end, Chabon is the only one who seems to know the truth about his grandmother.  I won’t tell you why or how.

I love this book because his grandfather is the coolest man to have ever lived.  You can’t help but think of the best aspects of your own father or grandfather as you read this story, and, believe me, he will remind you in some facet of your own paternal role model.  Chabon’s grandfather isn’t perfect, not by any means, but that’s also what makes him so loveable.  Plus, as you well know, much like ourselves, our own fathers and grandfathers are not perfect, either.

Chabon also plays with the narrative style quite a bit in this novel.  In terms of time, it is not linear.  Nothing happens in order, and it’s up to the reader to piece it all together.  But Chabon makes it a fairly seamless task for the reader, and in using such a structure, he ultimately builds mystery, suspense, and provides great emotional payoff.  Chabon’s choices are right on target; his pacing is a joy to experience; his tone, while at times very somber, is also light and warm in a manner that will draw you in and make you happy.  There’s even a great joke about Chabon’s style, delivered from the dying grandfather himself.  Be on the lookout for it.

Furthermore, Chabon makes a point to let you know that while this story actually happened, his novel is fiction.  He’s the first one to admit that he has taken great liberties without too much care or concern.  Some of it is probably word for word truth, and some of it is probably completely fabricated, and the beauty of it is that we, the readers, have no idea how to distinguish one from the other.  And to that I say, “Who cares?”  In my mind, reality is always a matter of perception.  When I read a book, I perceive, interpret, and process the story within my mind, which thus makes the book a part of my own personal reality.  As a result, “fiction” and “nonfiction” become a bit of a moot point when it comes to things like this.

I’d also like to say that this is perhaps the most straight-forward of any Chabon novel I’ve ever read.  Is it well-executed?  Magnificently so!  I laugh with my friends that I don’t believe Chabon used the same sentence structure more than once in the entire thing.  That’s an exaggeration, of course, but he’s that much of a master at writing.  And yet, this novel is easy to digest.  It’s easy to follow.  It’s not rife with metaphor.  It’s got great humor, great sadness, great love, and great action.  Oh, what action!  The World War II parts of this book set my imagination on fire.  In fact, because the grandfather is such an unusual everyman, and because the WWII scenes are so vibrant, I actually gave a copy of this book to my own father for Christmas.  I’m not sure when he read a book last, but he made a point today to tell me how much he’s loving Moonglow.

As we live our lives, they, for the most part, probably don’t seem that varied or interesting.  Yet, by our life’s ending, I’ll warrant most of our stories could fill a book, and I imagine that most of our children or grandchildren would love to read that story and experience who we were at 15, 35, 55, and even 75.  Chabon tapped into something wonderful by utilizing such a concept, and he’s got the talent to make it work.  Moonglow has shot to the top of my list of gifts to give friends, family, and coworkers.  I truly believe it’s a guaranteed good read for any reader.

How good is this book?  The minute I finished it, I turned back to page one and started reading it again.  Even better the second time.

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4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Let’s establish right away that Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors.  In fact, I’d consider myself something of a “fanboy.”  I’ve read the vast majority of his published work after discovering him about ten years ago.  He earned my trust back then, which means I will read anything he releases.  Anything.

4 3 2 1 is an ambitious work that absolutely experiments with style and execution.  It is extremely well written, meticulously organized, and clearly a labor of love.  This is an important novel due to its sheer moxie; it not only challenges well-established conventions in the field of literature, it summarily ignores them.

But, even with all of that being said, it missed the mark for me.  At 866 pages, 4 3 2 1 proved too much for this reader.  As you know, Auster is an avid baseball fan, and I definitely felt like I needed a scorecard for this epic volume.

Without spoiling too much, this novel imagines the four possible lives of a single man.  We follow him from boyhood all the way to death.  There are many touchstones that are obviously invariable from life to life, but there are also several deviations that alter one life drastically from another.  It’s a fascinating premise, one that we’ve all thought about from time to time.  What if my parents had separated?  What if I’d chosen a different school?  What if I had fallen into that pit and been paralyzed?  So many “what ifs” in life … Auster delves deeply into this notion while leaving no detail unexplored.

But, like Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, those nuanced details can overwhelm the reader to the point of provoking disengagement. At least, that’s what happened in my case.

Furthermore, if I’m being honest, Ferguson (the main character) is not especially interesting.  No matter which life we address, Ferguson is a bit aloof, a bit too precocious, a bit unlikable.  Well, perhaps “unlikable” is too strong of a word.  I would never describe him as “likable,” though.  Keep in mind, I don’t believe a character has to be “good” in the moral sense to be “likable.”  There have been plenty of “bad” characters that I thought were incredibly charismatic.

On the subject of morality, be warned … there is a lot of sex in this book — more than any Paul Auster book I’ve ever read.  There is straight sex, gay sex, committed sex, casual sex, oral sex, anal sex … you get the idea.  The sex often seemed to me as forced.  It never quite struck me as organic to the story.

While I found this to be a relevant addition to the author’s library because it broke new ground for an already inventive artist, it did not hold my attention.  While the writing is masterful, it failed to capture my imagination.  And while the characters are pounding with life, none of them seemed to take hold in my own.

 

 

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Tony and Susan by Austin Wright – A Book Review

A checked this book out because I read in Entertainment Weekly about a film adaptation coming soon called Nocturnal Animals.  Tony and Susan originally published in 1993.  The author died ten years later.

The EW article made the premise sound fascinating, so I couldn’t wait to read the book.  The plot is that Susan Morrow unexpectedly receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield.  They’ve been divorced nearly two decades and Susan is quite established in her new life with her new husband and new family.  The manuscript unnerves her because Edward’s writing is noted right away as a catalyst for their divorce all those years ago.

Tony and Susan quickly becomes a book within a book, and that inner book is entitled Nocturnal Animals. Susan’s ex-husband, Edward, has written a story in which his main character, Tony, gets involved with the wrong group of guys during a highway grudge match.  Unfortunately, his wife and college-aged daughter are in the car with him, and his actions have consequences for them as well.

As Susan reads about Tony’s horrific event, she is drawn in and can’t help but wonder why Edward has sent this manuscript to her after so many years of silence.  Is she meant to read something into it?  Should she take it at face value, or try to decipher some sort of message?

I’m torn about this book.  It starts off incredibly strong.  Tony’s plight with a gang of toughs made my heart race and I literally lost track of time as I read that part of the book – it flew by!

But when that initial thrill ended, Tony’s story lost a certain amount of urgency for me.  Furthermore, the book shifts in tone and begins to become very much about Susan as she reads Nocturnal Animals.  We learn more and more about she and Edward’s past, their marriage, and certain things that led to that marriage’s demise.

The first forty pages were absolutely riveting as Tony gambled with his family’s life while trying to stick it to a bunch of punks.  But when that primary conflict reached its immediate conclusion, I felt a little cheated.  I expected the vast majority of the book to be about Tony struggling to save his wife and child, but that wasn’t the case.  It instead turned very much into a character study of Tony, as well as Susan.  Hence, Tony and Susan, I suppose.

I still plan to see the movie, but more on the strength of the actors involved than the story itself.  Tony and Susan isn’t a bad read, but it certainly does not maintain its opening appeal.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling – A Book/Script Review

I admit that I can typically get caught up in a moment, but Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is my new favorite Harry Potter story.  If you haven’t yet read it, I urge you to do so.

Of course, it must be clarified that while this is in book format, it is not actually a book.  It is the script to the play currently being performed in England and hopefully soon headed to a US theater near you.  So, as one would expect, it reads like a play, not a novel.

With that being said, though, I found the script format a breath of fresh air.  I don’t need any more paragraphs devoted to the sorting hat or the train station – the script takes us right to the heart of the matter.

That word–heart–is something this particular story has in droves.  Is is nineteen years after The Deathly Hallows.  Harry Potter is now an adult with children of his own.  His youngest son, Albus, does not quite find his legacy endearing.

Albus seems to be nothing like his father as he immediately befriends the son of Draco Malfoy and lands in the Slytherin House.  Yet, Harry does not quite seem like himself either, for when it comes to Albus and he, Harry is less than heroic.

This story became my new favorite Harry Potter tale because it shows us a deeply flawed, and relatable, Harry Potter.  Just as his earliest readers are now adults, he struggles with the very same issues we do, especially as parents.

Furthermore, the story is far more complex than I ever expected with relationships fraught in tension, difficult moments between children and parents, and even more potent experiences between friends than I imagined.  Harry Potter’s world and family are far from perfect, and, frankly, I found such conflict vastly interesting and fun.

In fact, the story itself is more ambitious than I believed it would be.  Beyond the very realistic problems each character faces with friends and family, the story itself delves into time travel and alternate realities which allows for old favorites to reappear in logical, if not permanent, ways.

Nothing unfolds the way you would assume in The Cursed Child.  Harry is not the perfect father, nor is Albus the perfect son.  Unlikely friendships are forged even as difficult sacrifices must be both accepted and allowed.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a complex, mature tale firmly rooted in the realty of family life even as it breaks new ground in the realm of fantasy.  It is funny, exciting, heart-breaking, adventurous, and emotionally authentic.  I loved the script and I can’t wait to see the play.

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

Though I adore Annie Proulx’s work and count her among my favorite authors, Barkskins did not engage me as much as her previous books.

That’s not to say it’s not worthy of praise.  It’s magnificently written.  It’s also intricately detailed.  To declare it as epic may be an understatement considering it follows several generations of two men’s families from the 1700s to present day.  It pays an astounding amount of attention to historical fact, the trends and science of deforestation and reforestation, as well as various cultural customs spanning several centuries.

Honestly, I felt like I’d lived several lives by the end of this book, and it taught me much about how difficult surviving in this country proved to be for both Native Americans and the various early explorers, invaders, and settlers.  After all, nearly every character meets with a difficult end in this novel.  It also made me think about my own family history, as well as what the future may hold for my descendants.

So why didn’t I like it as much as Proulx’s other work?  I suppose I found it a little dense and slow.  Furthermore, part of what made it brilliant is part of why I didn’t find myself engaged – there are a lot of characters.  Too many characters, actually.  Six or seven of them I found captivating, but many of the rest were difficult to track and I lost interest in their particular stories.

Frankly, I may not have been in the right frame of mind for a book so demanding of my time and attention.  Perhaps I should revisit it in the summer when things are a little slower and I can give it more consideration (and possibly take notes).

As expected, Proulx has delivered a masterfully written book full of such passionate detail and historical authenticity that it’s hard not to appreciate its many positives.  In the end, though, I simply found it too long with too many characters that did not consistently hold my interest.

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Books To Win Over Your Reluctant Reader

I have the privilege of teaching a reading class primarily aimed at seniors in high school.  It is by and large a free-choice reading class, meaning students choose to read whatever they desire.  If a student doesn’t like a book, they are welcome to put it down and pick up a different one.

Some of the students come in excited with a long list of what they hope to get through during the semester.  Other students are not so excited to read, and those are the students I most enjoy.  I love those students in particular because I get the honor of helping them to rediscover their love of reading.  It all comes down to finding the right kind of book for them.  Once they discover their niche, they are off to the races.   I’ve had so many tell me that they like to read again because of the class, and I tell you what, you haven’t experienced joy until you’ve heard a student say that to you.

Listed below are books that always prove to be winners with my reluctant readers.  I’ve tried to divide them up by very general genres, and I’ve included a very simple summary.  Though this is but a small sample of literally hundreds I could recommend, I hope one of these will win over the reluctant reader in your life!

YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

Monster – Written from his perspective, Steve is a sixteen-year-old on trial for the murder of a drugstore owner. He says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and had nothing to do with the killing.  The prosecution refers to him as a “monster,” and the book features Steve struggling to deal with the awful stress of an uncertain future.

Eleanor & Park– Perhaps the most authentic book I’ve ever read about high school romance, this book is funny and heartwarming while still retaining an edge.  It perfectly captures the very adult emotions teenagers experience while still having to abide by their parents’ rules.  Best of all?  It never veers into the dreaded world of “sappy.”

Touching Spirit Bear – Cole, a juvenile delinquent, accepts an offer to follow a Native American practice and live isolated on a deserted island rather than face jail time.  Angry, unreasonable, and bitter, Cole respects nothing until he chances upon the Spirit Bear, a legendary creature that will inspire Cole to change after a violent encounter.

Tears Of a Tiger – When a high school superstar dies in a drunken car accident, his best friend Andy, who drove the vehicle, must deal with the guilt of the horrible tragedy.  It has one of the most shocking endings students will ever read.

The Fault In Our Stars – Though this book deals with very serious subject matter — teenage cancer — John Green somehow blends great humor into his characters.  In order to deal with terminal cancer, the teens make fun of it and riff on it to no end.  A romance ensues, but beware, there can be no happy ending with terminal illness.  Fast, funny, and thought-provoking, this one is always in demand.

Crank –  A brutal book depicting the depravities of meth addiction, this is the story of Kristina, a good girl who becomes addicted and develops a split personality to handle the awful things she does for meth. This book is graphic and pulls no punches, so be aware.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

Batman: Year One – This gritty book depicts Batman during his first year as a crime fighter.  He is raw, inexperienced, and at his most vulnerable.  Fans will love the moody art, quick dialogue, and grim characterization.

American Born Chinese – This book blends Chinese Mythology into a young boy’s life as he must deal with racism we rarely take into account.  Insightful with great swatches of humor, this one very much will make a student look at life a little differently.

Wolverine – Students love this graphic novel because it finally provides Wolverine’s origin story.  They will be shocked to learn Logan’s life is far different, and longer, than anyone expected!

Kingdom Come – Set in the near future, this beautifully painted graphic novel deals with older classic heroes like Batman and Superman coming to terms with new, violent, immoral crime fighters.  Poignant in today’s world, this story delves deeply into the problem of how far one should go to save people from themselves.

The Dark Knight Returns – This graphic novel changed the entire industry.  It imagines a retired Bruce Wayne in his sixties who decides to put on the cape and cowl again.  However, he is not nearly as fast, agile, or reflexive, and so he must learn to become a whole new Batman if he expects to survive.  Dark, violent, and generally unsettling, this story illustrates a side of Batman never before seen.

All-Star Superman – This book will delight even the most casual of Superman fans.  Grant Morrison has taken the best Superman stories since 1938, put a modern twist on them, and connected them into one linear, cohesive story.  The art is exquisite, and this Superman is charismatic, fun, and a true hero.

NOVELS

World War Z – Written as nonfiction, this book will make you forget it’s all make-believe.  Delivered as a series of eye-witness accounts, field reports, and interviews, you will begin to think this book really happened and get more and more unsettled with each page.

Gone Girl – If you’ve seen the movie, the huge surprise is already ruined, but this book is fantastic because it keeps you guessing and virtually none of the characters have any redeeming qualities.  It’s a little bit of a thriller, a little bit of a mystery, and it will keep a student riveted throughout.  Be aware, however, it is written for adults.

The Gunslinger – Part one of Stephen King’s epic series, Roland is a cowboy with a six-shooter forged from Excalibur who must make his way to the Dark Tower in order to restore order to reality.  As the series goes on, it weaves its way into other Stephen King books, and at one point Stephen King becomes a character himself!  This series is amazing because once reluctant readers get into it, the enormous size of the books don’t bother them at all!

The Martian – Set in the near future, Mark Watney is left behind after a manned mission to Mars.  Much of the book is from Watney’s perspective, and it’s fascinating to watch him run though the math and mechanics to keep himself alive on an inhospitable planet.  Though the book is very heavily rooted in science, Watney’s sense of humor as he’s describing it makes it very entertaining to read.  This is definitely a feel good book and a must-read.

American Gods – This novel imagines the gods of the old world covertly battling the gods of the new.  While it can be something of a crash course in world mythology, at its core the book is about Shadow, and ex-convict trying to find peace with his past, his present, and also his future.  Lovers of the fantasy genre will adore the scope and nuance of this masterfully written work.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Don’t let the title fool you, this is the absolute best time travel story that I’ve ever read.  The author goes to great lengths to make sure everything is connected, logical, and executed well.  The main character is genetically predisposed to lose his place in time, and in doing so, meets his wife as a little girl.  But then a question arises … does he condition her to one day be his wife, or, when she meets the young adult version of him for the first time, does she condition him to be her husband?  The complexities of cause and effect mixed with potent emotional moments between man and wife make for a wonderfully written, highly engaging read.