31159611Cora and the Crocodile is sweet because the illustrations are sweet. Victorian barley curls trap Cora’s downcast young face, and the illustrations are in a pleasant early summer palette. It’s also a first chapter book that is a pleasure. Cora comes by the crocodile because her parents, the king and queen, fill every moment of her day with tasks to prepare her to be queen. Wanting a pet, she writes a letter to her fairy godmother, but rips it up and throws it away. But following this world’s logic, “because it was a letter to her fairy godmother, every scrap turned into a white butterfly and flew away.”

The resulting crocodile wreaks havoc on the nanny who gives Cora torturously many baths, her mother’s boring lessons, and her father’s manic exercise regimes. The critiques bring to mind well-intentioned but out of touch parents who overschedule their kid’s time and under-schedule their time to be a kid.

The crocodile is ornery and its personality is conveyed with each illustration. I think this would be a nice one-on-one read-aloud, and a lovely book about compromise.

Esperanza RisingEsperanza Rising left such an impression on me when I read it around fourth grade. Speaking to how visual I was, the blue sky and yellow dress as well as the lines in Esperanza’s pose rooted the memory of the book in me, and I appreciate it anew now. Reading it again, I was surprised and a little happy to see how privileged and unknowledeble of other’s feelings and circumstances Esperanza is at the get-go– it makes her believable transformation interesting, and feel well-earned. Her spirit is a good one; she’s caring, hard-working, intelligent, astute. She comes to see class difference between lighter skinned Mexicans of the wealthy, landowning class (her birth family) versus that of her peer/son of a field worker and housekeeper, Miguel. Though they grow up playing together, she articulates the gulf between their positions by telling him that in Mexico, “between them runs a deep river.” The racism and classism that exist in Mexico, unseen to Esperanza due to her position as a rancher’s daughter, come into play for her in the United States. Mexican workers are seen as interchangeable to American farmers, who would sooner have La Migra, immigration, do a raid than allow workers to strike for better wages or unionize. Isabel, a close friend of Esperanza’s at the camp where she lives, will never be crowned Queen of May at her elementary school, despite her exemplary grades,

The insults chip away at her and her family and friends– Mexicans can only swim in a community pool the day before it is cleaned, Miguel comes back from a job covered in dust because despite his expertise in motors, he was told to dig ditches while unskilled Oklahomans worked on engines, her camp gets unheated water and the threat of deportation– regardless of legal status.

The ending is sweet, emotional, meaningful. Esperanza has a real journey, and Ryan ends the novel by telling us how her grandmother’s life inspired the story, and how in Spanish, Esperanza means hope.

It’s also a novel where both the people and the landscape are vivid. I read this when I was younger and historical fiction was my jam– this is still my jam, and I’ll be reading more of this author.

 

*These reviews were written last August.

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s-l1600Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, and soon exploring Vancouver, New York and Europe, Nancy Wake doesn’t stay in one place long. She travels among countries and cities solo, with various groups of friends, from her coworkers in journalism to the cosmopolitan men and women who dined in Paris and the Riviera, and then with members of the French Resistance. In short, she lived a fascinatingly extroverted, playful and brave life during what seems to be every moment of it. It’s at this fast clip that Wake also recounts the creep of fascism preceding World War II– from France’s perception of the Spanish Civil War to Fascists in Vienna and the treatment of the Jewish population there. It’s Vienna where Wake first determines her hatred of the Nazi party, but it’s by far her last encounter with them.

Whether it’s time that dulls the edges of the memory or it’s her style of storytelling, and I think it’s her style, Wake remains somewhat removed from events like the death of her husband or her decision to join any group in England whose mission it was to help the Resistance in France that would take her– and respect her. I would have liked to hear more of the mechanics of locating these groups (were they military, and if not, how were all these able-body men able to join instead of being drafted by their own military?), and her emotions and thought process, but her telling is brisk, and amazing. Anything less would have yielded a dense volume, because her life is loaded with naughty anecdotes and heroic, clever choices.

Chapter one, for examples, opens with this: “This is a story of a naive and rather sensitive young Australian romantic who arrived in Paris in 1934 determined not to be uncouth, and of how her experience made her the woman who K.O.’d a waiter with her bare fist in a Paris club in 1945.” It’s a sentence that requires a bit of breath to get out, and it tell of a rather long period of her life all at once.

It’s also lovely to read a memoir of someone who valued her friendships (she tells of her friend Samantha, who, to Wake’s rear-facing gaze most likely had some sort of mental illness, who was wild and charismatic and beautiful), and such normal things as having a pet. One of the canniest openings to a chapter details her clocking an anonymous male, doing a double take, and then realizing it’s love at first sight; of course, it’s her darling pet dog Picon who’s the male in question, but that’s an example of her love of laughs and flare for good storytelling.

29936927.jpgThis is author Thi Bui and her family’s story of living in and leaving Vietnam at the end of the war in the 70s. She began this project as an oral history, but, unsatisfied with the way the format served their history, she began to explore comics. The narrative synthesizes when she becomes a parent– we come to see parallel tales of what parents do for their children when they are only human beings themselves, and how children grow to be both bound by family history and become their own persons.

But first, physically, the pages in the book are this magnificent sepia rust color. The visuals pull you into the past, and it’s the colors as much as the compelling narrative that had me reading the entire book in one sitting in the park. The story took me to a past I haven’t experienced as closely as it could, and with that color there’s an almost wincing pain to the pictures. The rust denotes wear and fragility, to me. And then, the book flaps and end pages are a magnificently peaceful blue, incredibly cleansing and calming. It’s a pleasure, visually.

It’s also impossible to read and not have the “American” view of the Vietnam War decentered. Bui talks about how the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese are commonly portrayed by Americans: the former dangerous and rarely closely examined, and the latter in a series of one-dimensional stereotypes. Neither does justice to Vietnam’s colonial legacy or then-contemporary politics, or to the web of personal connections that complicate both.

Bui also highlights Eddie Adam’s Saigon Execution photo to address the importance of context. Immediate events leading up to the execution include Nguyen Van Lem killing a family in their home, which lead to Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of Lem. And that’s only the immediate before. The photo read as chaos, violence, lawlessness and the futility of continued fighting in Vietnam to many Americans, and as Bui says, is “credited with turning popular opinion in America against the war. I think a lot of Americans forget that for the Vietnamese, the war continued, whether America was involved or not.”

To illustrate the point, Bui depicts a rocket that misses her parents house but hit their neighbor’s, friends killed in fighting, the family separating for long periods, keen financial worry amid inflation and not finding work, a stillborn child, and Bui’s own birth three months before the

This book invites reflection on your own place inside your own family, and history. Bui’s visual story, her transformation, and journey to understanding are beautiful. What the story and Bui’s method of telling beg me to consider is my own culpability and responsibility. I consider these two things in terms of my family, friends, my role in my organization, as a citizen of my city, and generally person who will leave an impression (whether it will be a crater or legacy is yet to be determined). I consider this knowing what Bui comes to learn as a child who becomes a parent– that we are all children of someone who inherit some sort of legacy, and we are all doing the best we can do.

485803.jpgI pay my taxes to this city, so I was obligated to read this book. It’s been taunting me for years now. Fittingly, since it has the word “mysteries” in the title, I have a lot of questions.

I picked my copy up at the Squirrel Hill library while I was waiting for somebody. I read this book ten minutes from where most of the action takes place, the summer making the back of my knees sweat. I love Pittsburgh, I hate recognize the difficult life stage of college kids and I too have experienced the toddler-like self-absorbtion and galactic sense of pretension they can have… that being said, this was a novel about assholes. Really huge gaping dirty assholes. It seemed indulgent and detached at once.

The book itself doesn’t have stance on these people– we make up our own minds, but it doesn’t mean I enjoyed reading about them.

Do people not familiar with Pittsburgh enjoy the cooooonstant geographic check-ins? This guy’s Insta would be lame. Highland Park, Hillman Library (Oakland), Cloud Factory (Oakland), Squirrel Hill and Shadyside (aka Oakland 2.0 and 3.0, fight me). I guess Mt. Washington is in there, where Art meets his crime-lord father for dinner.

Speaking of neighborhoods and money, does Art understand where his money comes from? He keeps talking about rough parts of town, but not understanding his family’s complicity in making them so.

More mysteries: why is Jane even a character? What is with the territorial dog sex scene– is placeholder sexual assault a thing? Do women want men to be battering rams in bed? Or just Phlox, Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl? She’s just there in Hillman (where else) waiting for up to FOUR DAYS with no panties on to get fucked by a looooser. I am glad I went to Chatham.

What’s with this Art/Arthur business? They have the same name. I like that it’s innocuously done, since people often have the same name, but it underlines how self-involved the characters are. Either that was done knowingly or unknowingly– either way, sheesh.

All in all, to me, the book’s weird structure was held together loosely by odd situations and passing observations. Many books have narrators who function as the reader, i.e. they are there to observe and be our window. But Art’s passivity and apathy was torturous, and I loathed “sharing” the first person with him. TMoP just wasn’t my book.

 

Friends! It’s been seven months, it’s a full moon, my apartment is full of plants and I’ve been a librarian for a month already! A month! What a learning curve, what potential, what people.

And now I’m full of vim and drive and there’s a definite purpose: learn LOC subcategories, impress businesswomen on their lunch break by knowing the book they need for their bookclub that’s mis-shelved has a yellow spine (“A-ha, here it is!”), and write this shit down so I remember that I had an opinion about it. And still, rediscovering my love of reading after a really brutal, wring-me-drier than drought Grad School Experience, which I remember as always taking place after dark for some reason.

Apres moi, le deluge:

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Holly Seddon’s Try Not to Beathe

Try Not to Breathe, aka the book I had to keep Googling by author because the title is so vague and had so little connection to the book I was like wuhhh. The book club I was briefly in said it was a conglomerate of all the Girl on the Train read-likes they’ve done, which isn’t bad but whodunits have never been my thing. I forgot it soon after reading it (finished it Sunday am in the park), but I didn’t hate reading it….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Far From You by Tess Sharpe

There were many four letter names in Far From You: Kyle, Mina, Macy, Trev, which for some reason sounds so California, which is actually where it’s set. Someone smelled like “jasmine and gunpowder,” which charmed me. Glibness aside, it was a page-turner that was honest and urgent about addiction (not, “I was an addict,” but “I am an addict.”) and grief; this girl goes through so much trauma. Sophie is in a car accident because her bff’s brother runs a stop sign, and then she gets hooked on her pain meds, and then her bff/could-be-gf-in-the-future, Mina, tells Sophie’s parents so she’s sent to her aunt’s to get clean. When she comes back, it would be all’s well that ends well but Mina’s chasing down a lead on an abducted classmate and Mina is shot. In front of Sophie. And bleeds out. Nobody believes that Sophie and Mina weren’t in Little Taint, Nowhere to score more drugs for addict Sophie, so she has to find the killer, deal with her grief, fight her addiction, and not mind that everyone thinks it was her weakness that lead Mina to her death. She also attacks someone with bear spray and turns the bottom of her mattress into an evidence board.

 

A whodunnit, which I just said I didn’t read, but fast and pages were turned quickly. I’m interested in the guilt of Mina’s brother, which follows him throughout the book– one mistake started this whollleee thing, and Sharpe lets us know that exactly how often this kind boy dealt a bad hand thinks about his mistake. Which was, to be clear, a mistake. Also the story of a love story cut short between Sophie and Mina is such a grievous, well-captured thing. Their relationship truly felt cut off right in the middle of it.

 

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The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illus. Jon Klassen

I read The Nest because I wanted to read Middle Grade… and so it was read. Fast, cause I’m an adult, but there’s this sense of disconnect I get when I read a LOT of MG. Also, this wasn’t my genre. So, Kid was being followed by real wasps? Does he also hallucinate? Was this a real mental illness, or a kid’s imagination? Not asking questions to critique, this really isn’t my scene and I’m just gathering my thoughts. Cool, though, and I thought about it. A good book about a new baby in the family, and a family adjusting to a baby with a disability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Last Boy at St. Edith’s by Lee Gjersten Malone

Ha! The Last Boy at St. Edith’s was suggested for me and a cohort of women’s college grads after our alma mater went co-ed. It (going co-ed) is an upset, people, let me tell you (and the impetus for this blog).

What’s also an upset is growing up. Being under appreciated. Things changing, like your mom starting to date guys or not knowing who you are and not knowing how to make friends. The last boy at St. Ediths, -Jeremy, deals with all of this. I thought I could look through this book and see my experience with college, but instead I really saw my adolescence, which is my bag. It was a first time novel, so I’m so excited to see what Malone does next. She did that thing where there was a due-for and well-developed revelation that half of his insecurities were brought on by feelings of un-sureness and anxiety, which, aren’t those always the culprit? An emotionally healthy book, I liked it.

This book is also real about money, and the financial reasons Jeremy has to stay at this school (his mom works there so they get free or discount tuition), and she’s real about parental neglect (the dad’s a piece in this one). The mom isn’t in this huge amounts, but she’s in it hugely, in that I feel as if I can imagine her steamy rightful anger at her ex and her situation.

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Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan. illus. Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson

Half of Paper Girls takes place in the morning twilight! A liminal (fav word) time! I love it! Again, make it a movie. I imagine Emmanuel Lubezki will do the cinematography.

 

Read it. Read it read it read it. I started it on the bus and was transported right outta my seat. There was a weird gargoyle bugaboo interrogating a character with standardized test questions in the sweet Hereafter in the character’s anxiety dream (or was it??), which captures my high school experience in a few panels. High school blows!

The first bugbear in the real world is a fella in a fedora, which is legit. The next set of attackers (or maybe not attackers, but scary people) turn out to be weird-looking teenagers (also legit). And of course there’s shitty cops. But the real beasts, I think, are corporate white dudes from the future using the right language to get people to do their bidding. The guy’s wearing an Apple t-shirt. Yoinks, Scoob.

The colors in this are so dreamy. As is the style, the succinct repartee, the mix of full page art and panels. Juxtapose the creamsicle-colors against pterodactyls and understand my delight. There’s politics and I guess corporations vs individuals vs some sort of teenage underground… I don’t know, I can’t wait till the next volume. Forgive me if I messed something up, I’ll re-read it before the next volume, but in the meantime I’m gonna check out Saga.

ALSO. Ronald Reagan saying with a wink that, “Not everyone who gets shot dies” in another dream and handing off that motif of the Tree of Knowledge apple which is rotten with a bullet in it– what’s happening!!!

 

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FOUR AWARDS “I still think awards are stupid, but they’d be less stupid if they went to the right people.” -Ron Swanson

Review written ages ago and never published. 

Setting: 1980s, El Paso

There’s a line in Mad Men, “Don’t be scared, kid, you ain’t a man yet.” And it works for Mad Men, but it doesn’t work for this book. What this book does is illuminate the scary liminal space where boyhood and manhood overlap. It’s a time of coming into your a body, into new feelings, of leaving and becoming. This book has all of the reasons I love YA lit. 

“I wasn’t a boy anymore. But I still felt like a boy. Sort of. But there were things I was starting to feel. Man things, I guess. Man loneliness was much bigger than boy loneliness. And I didn’t want to be treated like a boy anymore. I didn’t want to live in my parents’ world and I didn’t have a world of my own. In a strange way, my friendship with Dante had made me feel even more alone.” So says erstwhile loner Aristotle, or Ari, after he becomes friends with Dante, the extroverted and spirited son of a therapist and professor. 

This book is also about our living networks; we’re always part of one, or a few. In Ari’s case, it’s his family, his friends, people at his school, even his coworkers at his first job. The author writes about people with tender, tender hearts, none more sweet, giving and caring than the parents of Dante and Aristotle, who live fully formed lives the readers can sense even though they’re not the focus. Bonus, the set of parents become friends with each other, and it’s gorgeous. (The characters and dynamics in this book give me the same enchanted and protective feeling Bone Gap did.) 

After spending an afternoon reading poetry on his friend’s bed, and learning new words, Ari learns what it means to have relationships with people, whatever form that relationship takes: 

…he read me poems. I didn’t worry about understanding them. I didn’t care about what they meant. I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world, they weren’t.

I went home and looked up the word “inscrutable.” …. that afternoon, I learned two new words. “Inscrutable.” And “friend.”

Words were different when they lived inside of you.

Ari comes to talk and live and feel many things through his friendship with Dante, and his growing up cues his parents to reflect and grow, too. The family trauma which isn’t discussed gets discussed: Ari’s older brother was incarcerated for murdering two people when Ari was just a kid. The family, including his much older twin sisters, never mention the eldest brother. The family begins to communicate with each other, until finally they are able to discuss their missing brother and son. Ari learns that his mother had a breakdown after Bernardo was sentenced, and his father talks about the PTSD that gives him nightmares even years after he left Vietnam. 

Both Ari and his dad learn that they are important to people. Part of being in a network is knowing that you affect people, and I don’t think that’s something everyone, including Dante and his father, realizes. 

Ari has so many good exchanges with the adults in his life. La Bloga asked Saenz a great question about the caring adults in his novels, and interactions with either his or Dante’s parents were some of my favorite. “I always have bad dreams,” Ari says when his father asks. “And are you always trying to find me?” His Dad wants to know. Learning not to take his father at face value (his dad is largely silent at the beginning) and realizing that his father has both a past and an internal world strengthens their relationship. His father opens up to Ari, though, too. “It was strange to talk about something real,” Ari thinks. Realness, again. Adults aren’t complete, and their character development isn’t over. Ari realizes in the novel that, “Everyone was always becoming someone else.” 

The whole ride is tender, lyrical, sweet. There’s such a sense of place in it, even though it’s not exactly descriptive: the rain, the desert, the pool, each boy’s room. I loved it.


  • like the one scene in the Scarlett Letter, there are three instances of illness or hospitalization in this that each give the characters opportunity to show how they’ve developed and where they are in a journey
  • FUCKING ILENA. Such a small part, and all the more poignant. You don’t have to heavy handedly hammer yammer to make a point: she has something eyes and Ari thinks he could like her, but when she doesn’t show up to school, Ari goes to check on her. Her brother answers the house door and nonchalantly tells him: she dropped out, she’s pregnant, her boyfriend is in a gang. At one point, Ari knows that he and Dante will no longer play a boyish game of seeing who can throw their tennis shoes the furthest. The stakes are high for these kids, and Ilena demonstrates that. 
  • This needs to be made into a movie! Imagine: trailer opens, montage, rain, desert skies, wise-ass sweet-heart kids, brother in prison, remnants of Vietnam– fades out to teenagers in an 80s burger joint joined together singing U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” My ticket is bought. 
  • Homophobia is here. Not just in beatings, but in how Dante thinks Ari might abandon him. They have rules, or rather Ari has rules, and Dante comes up with one: “Don’t run away from Dante.” He says, “I think you know what that means. Someday, someone will walk up to you and say: ‘Why are you hanging out with that queer?’”

 

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Title quote from Neko Case’ “Pretty Girls”

For seven years I’ve been annoyed that when the narrator’s girlfriend in John Green’s Looking for Alaska learns how to give a blowjob, reciprocation is never hinted at. Or even expected. The world’s a dark, unfair place. But now, in the year 2015 and like a balm on a 7-year wound, Bone Gap has the best Colonel Angus scene in any YA lit I’ve read. We even get jokes about it, jokes between two kind-hearted kids who really like each other. 2015!!!

 

The tenderness in the sex scene runs a stark contrast to the vehement misogyny Roza’s journey highlights. She’s a college student from Poland who blows into Bone Gap, Illinois like the wind, and just as suddenly disappears. Turns out, she was kidnapped and escaped to the small rural town, only to be found and taken prisoner again; this time, she’s taken to a much more sinister, fey vacuum where the surroundings changes on her captor’s whim. The captor (who I don’t think is ever named but instead is referred to in vague terms as the man or the professor or something) is a proxy for all predatory and sinister men. (Or maybe he is named?? I forget.)

Before she traveled to America, in Poland, Roza learns how people can diminish you if you let them.* In this book, those people are boys, and the girls who seek approval from them. The weird faerie-land is fake, but the problem is real and relevant, especially to young people learning the way of the world and their place in it.

That theme, growing into yourself and finding values, follows each character in some way. Each of these sweet tenderhearted young people are each defined in some way: Roza by being beautiful, Petey (a girl): ugly; Finn: spacey. On the subject of the two main women, Roza and Petey, it’s compelling and refreshing to read about physical appearance playing a huge role not in terms of worth, but in terms of interacting with people in daily life. Boyfriends tell Roza not to eat too much lest she grow pudgy, marring her beauty. One man asks, “Who needs school when you could be a model.” A United States custom official sexually harasses her at airport security, all the power of his position and his maleness behind him. For Petey, and anyone who at some point in their childhood who realized they didn’t have disney princess looks, being ugly is its own thing to navigate. In her case, she gets a reputation, or persona, for being thick skinned. Finn remembers, “He’d heard the crap said about her, but he’d assumed she was too fierce to care. But who was too fierce to care?”

Besides the realness in this magical realism book and the tenderheartedness so true you can almost sense the heartbeats, this book has values, even if some characters don’t. Take this example of the creepy man’s conversation with Roza:

“If you cannot love me, you must accept me. There is nothing else”

“I will kill myself,” Rosa said. “I will kill myself.”

But the man only laughed. “I thought you understood. It’s all the same to me.”

It’s all the same to me. Your life means nothing, but owning, possessing, mastering you means everything. All because of the import placed on beauty, and the dehumanization of women by men like this (and there are a few examples of people doing this to varying degrees throughout the book, as noted). In Roza’s life, it means she is imprisoned and groped and her mundane life is as threatening as the one in the not-so-real land. The unreal is blown out of proportion to highlight the horror of the real.

 

*The idea of diminishment that drew me to Giovanni’s Room is explore here. Growing is as much about growing as it is about not being diminished, or recognizing your own personhood.