A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Biography) by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Ishmael Beah (Adult Biography)

Ishmael Beah is a typical 12-year old boy.  He enjoys rap music, practicing his dance moves, and playing soccer with his friends.  But on one January day in 1993, what he and his brother and friends don’t realize as they head to Mattru Jong for a talent show, as that they will never be returning to their village of Mogbwemo again.

War has come to Sierra Leone.  The adults call it a revolutionary war—a liberation of the people from a corrupt government.  But why do the liberators kill innocent people?  Why do they pillage and burn down the villages?  Ishmael and his friends soon find themselves wandering from village to village searching for food, struggling for survival, and keeping one step ahead of the rebels.  When they are captured by the government army, they are given a choice: join and fight or die.

Beah’s personal account of his years as a child soldier is horrifying and unimaginable.  In his book, he says that it was his father’s words that kept him moving despite his weariness: “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.  If there is nothing left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.”

It was hard reading Beah’s story and learning about his vile actions during war, his terrifying nightmares that made him fear sleep, and his addiction to marijuana and cocaine.  Perhaps what is harder still is knowing that the practice of using children as soldiers in war still exists and remains rampant.  But Beah gives us a story not just of tragedy, but of redemption and hope.  When he is rescued by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center, every day counselors and medical staff would say to him, “It’s not your fault.”  After many months, the day finally came when he began to believe it.  By forgiving himself, Ishmael Beah started to forge a new beginning for himself and began to share his incredible story with the world—a story that will hopefully bring awareness and change for the thousands of children still fighting in wars throughout the world.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (YA)

Under the Mesquite

Under the Mesquite  

Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Young Adult Fiction)

Lupita knows that her Mami has a secret that she is hiding from her and her seven siblings.  She hears her talking with her comadres in their hushed words and sees their furtive glances.  Something is different.  Something is wrong.  Then Lupita hears the word that Mami keeps tucked behind closed doors…”cancer”.  Suddenly, Lupita has to deal with her mother’s chemo treatments, her best friend’s sudden ridicule, and her upcoming 15th birthday.  Through it all, she has her writing.  For a brief moment, Lupita is able to block out the world and find solace as she pours out her feelings under the sanctuary of her family’s mesquite tree.

McCall gives us inspiration through tragedy as she delivers a compelling story written entirely in free verse.  Although this is a quick read (a slow read is encouraged), the author provides an enormous amount of depth, detail, and emotion by using just a few words proving that less is indeed more.

I enjoyed seeing Lupita go between her homeland of Mexico and her current home in the United States.  McCall’s use of Spanish words throughout the book gives the story a richness that allows us to totally immerse ourselves in Lupita’s culture and world.  These two halves of her life are very different, but somehow fit seamlessly to give us a whole girl who is headstrong, caring, and mature beyond her years.

In the beginning of the story, a mesquite tree unexpectedly grows in the middle of Mami’s prized rose garden.  But over time, this intrusion is a welcomed and comforting presence.  Through pruning, the tree has grown to be quite lovely, but it is not its beauty that strikes Lupita.

“I envy the mesquite

its undaunted spirit, its ability to turn

even a disabling pruning

into an unexpected opportunity

to veer in a different direction,

flourishing more profusely than before”.

It would be wonderful if we were all just a little bit more like the mesquite tree:  growing stronger after being weakened, finding new opportunities through loss, and thriving wherever planted.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker

Kate Alcott (Adult Fiction)

All Tess Collins dreams of is being a seamstress, but instead, deception places her in a hotel where she spends her days working as a servant.  The dockworkers say that there are jobs on that huge ship sailing to New York.  It is magnificent and truly worthy of its name…Titanic.  With an act of blind benevolence on the part of world-renowned designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, Tess’s future suddenly appears as bright and hopeful as Titanic’s maiden voyage.  Her romantic life also casts off when she meets two men vying for her attention: a mature Chicago millionaire and an amiable ship’s sailor.  But when disaster strikes and passengers fight for survival, circumstances force Tess to question her own choices and desires.

Many are familiar with Titanic’s plight through movies and history books, but few know the aftermath: the hearings, testimony, scandals, and anguish endured by the survivors who vacillate between feelings of euphoria and guilt.  Alcott masterfully combines actual people and Senate transcripts with fictional characters and dramatic situations to deliver a story both chilling and compelling.  Through it all, she gives us a main character who constantly struggles between being loyal to her mistress and being true to herself.

Alcott’s The Dressmaker reminds us that courage cannot be carried in a wallet and character cannot be poured from a bottle of champagne.  Instead, it is often the most humble and poor among us that are capable of the most extraordinary acts of heroism and kindness.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli (J)

The King of Mulberry Street

The King of Mulberry Street

Donna Jo Napoli (Juvenile Fiction)

“There was a saying that no one starved in farmlands.  My city, Napoli, was surrounded by farmlands, yet we’d been hungry for months.”

Nine-year old Dom was illegitimate, poor, but loved.  His mother called him “mio tesoro – my treasure”, and one day she took her beloved son to the docks and stowed him away on a cargo ship headed to a place where dreams come true—America.  Before sending him away, Dom’s mother gave him one strict instruction: “Your job is to survive.”  Alone, with only a new pair of shoes in his possession, Dom struggles for daily survival in this country with its strange languages and customs, all the while searching for a way to get back home.

This is a work of fiction, but Napoli says that she was inspired by the story of her paternal grandfather who, like Dom, came to New York as a young boy.  Napoli sets her story in Manhattan in 1892 and gives us a main character who is scrappy, kind, generous, and honest.  Moreover, he manages to hold true to his moral values and religious convictions (he is a Jewish Italian) despite his dire circumstances and outside influences.  The reader can only admire and marvel at his resilience and convictions.

When recalling his life back in Napoli, Dom often remembers the proverbs his Nonna often said.  One such proverb was, “You get, you give” and Dom takes this to heart as we see him always giving throughout the book.  Whether he’s returning an act of kindness or helping another in greater need, he shows us that even the smallest act of goodwill often has the greatest impact.  Napoli gives us a beautiful story of trust, loyalty, and friendship.  As Dom begins to carve out a life for himself in America, he reminds us of the importance of being true to oneself and that family isn’t defined by bloodline or name, but by love and devotion.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Moses has had lunch with his wife Nola every day for the past six months (missing only just one day, which is not bad for an octogenarian with no car and bad knees).  He departs the bus with his folding chair and bagged lunch, sits beside her headstone (she’s passed away you see, but “a promise is a promise”), and tells Nola about the day’s events or complains about their neighbor, Lucille (who considers the world to be her classroom, BUT happens to make THE most wonderful desserts).  While Arthur gains comfort through his daily cemetery visits, 18-year old Maddy Harris seeks escape.  Maddy is a budding photographer and artist (who is rather pretty despite that awful nose ring), but she is viewed as an outsider by her high school classmates and therefore endures relentless ridicule and abuse.  At the graveyard, she finds peace, and it is here where she and Arthur meet and begin a very unlikely friendship.

Berg delivers an endearing, amusing, and pleasant story about three flawed individuals who, like most of us, merely want to be accepted, useful, and loved.  Each one of them holds a piece to the others’ happiness and when they are placed together, they fit to form a quirky yet beautiful puzzle.  This is a delightful read that is surprisingly uplifting and inspirational, despite the underlying themes of death and loss.

Early in the book, Maddy mentions that her English teacher taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning yearning and grief for lost places.  The Story of Arthur Truluv provides the reader with some glimmer of promise and hope that grief is never permanent and what is lost will once again be found.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies

William Golding (Adult Fiction)

Tragedy strikes when a plane carrying English schoolboys crashes onto an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean.  Lacking adult supervision, they eagerly welcome the adventure that awaits them.

“This is our island.  It’s a good island.  Until the grownups come to fetch us we’ll have fun.”

Their elation soon turns to discontent as rules are quickly established to maintain a semblance of order.  Soon, their tight-knit group breaks into factions and their once carefree lifestyle is threatened while they wait and hope for rescue.

This book will leave you unnerved and emotionally raw as you watch this group’s slow descent into moral depravity and eventual savagery.  Absent the presence of an actual authoritative figure, these boys suffer no negative consequences and slip into traits which come naturally to them: frivolity, disobedience, and indifference.  Desperate for structure and stability, they will follow any strong and decisive leader—regardless of how corrupt or destructive this person may be.

Golding masterfully lures us deep into a place full of wonder, mystery, and danger, and his attention to detail is as lush as the forest he describes.  He slowly builds tension and suspense, which ultimately culminates in a heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, and unforgettable climax.  Perhaps the most disturbing and frightening aspect of this book, published in 1954, is not its plausibility, but its lurking inevitability.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.bookdepository.com

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (YA)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Jacqueline Kelly (Young Adult Fiction)

Calpurnia Tate is 11 years old (almost 12!) and having quite the summer.  It’s 1899 in Fentress, Texas and her sole objective at the moment is staying cool…which is proving to be quite impossible.  Priorities soon shift when her brother Harry gives her a small, red notebook and tells her she can use it to record her daily observations.  You see, Calpurnia loves to watch things, and after she watches things, she has questions—lots and lots of questions.  One of those questions brings her to her grandfather who presents her with a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  This singular gesture not only marks the beginning of their relationship, but it also sets Calpurnia’s life in a direction that’s very different from the one her mother has planned for her.

I really enjoyed Calpurnia’s character—a girl ahead of her time who dismisses the notion that women can only be teachers, nurses, or wives.  Instead, she is eager to trade her knitting needles for a microscope and her cookbook for a science book.  Kelly gives us a strong and feisty heroine who loves, angers, disappoints, and surprises yet through it all, never loses her sense of self or what is most important to her.  I also loved seeing her relationship with her grandfather deepen as their shared love of nature and science draws them closer.  The author does leave a few unanswered questions at the end of the book which may frustrate some readers, but these loose ends are not enough to detract from a likeable main character and a charming, witty story.

Grandfather Tate once told Calpurnia, “It’s amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look.”   I hope The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate encourages all of us to disconnect from our devices long enough to reconnect with the beauty and majesty that surrounds us in the natural world.  All we have to do is sit quietly and look.

Rating: 4/5