Current Book Review

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (J)

Hoot

Hoot

Carl Hiaasen (Juvenile Fiction)

It’s tough always being “the new kid”.  It’s even tougher when there is a bully involved, but the day that Dana Matherson mashed Roy Eberhardt’s face against the school bus window was perhaps the greatest stroke of luck since Alexander Graham Bell spilled acid on his leg.  For it was at that exact moment that Roy saw the mysterious running boy bolting past the bus.  He was wearing no shoes and carrying no backpack or books.  What was he running from?  Where was he going?  And why wasn’t he wearing any shoes?  Turns out, that wasn’t the only mystery in the sleepy little town of Coconut Cove, Florida.  Someone is trying to prevent the newest Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House from being built.  Between burrowing owls, alligators, sparkly-tailed snakes, fake farts, and nightly pranks, perhaps Coconut Cove isn’t so sleepy after all.

Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2003.  He gives us two mysteries in one: a strange running boy and a vandal thwarting the efforts of a big-time corporation.  The story is witty, fast-paced, and full of heart.  Our hero, Roy, is likeable and full of moxie.  For a kid who just wants to get through the school day unnoticed, he makes it a point to stand out from the crowd.  From taking on the school bully to striking up an unusual friendship with Beatrice Leep, an elite soccer star, Roy quickly makes a name for himself and becomes the unlikeliest of heroes.

Hoot is more than just a story about friendship and courage.  It is a David-versus-Goliath story as environmentalism goes head-to-head with capitalism.  It’s burrowing owls against big bucks and a group of average kids willing to go to great lengths in order to protect something far more valuable than a building or a brand.  In addition, we are introduced to a rather unseemly group of adults: an opportunistic officer, a nasty vice-principal, crooked politicians, a vile stepmother, greedy corporate heads, and so on.  Luckily, there are a few adults in the book who haven’t sold their soul to the devil, but the spotlight is really on Roy, Beatrice, and our mysterious running boy, which proves that good things do come in small packages.

American writer and poet Suzy Kassem wrote, “Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone.”  Carl Hiaasen gives readers a story about defending the weakest among us—the helpless and vulnerable who either lack the voice to speak up or the courage to stand up.  He provides instances showing people doing good in order to curry favor or to get ahead, but it’s the instances where good is done simply because it is the right thing to do that proves to be the truest measure of a person.  Hiaasen illustrates this through a new kid, a mysterious running boy, and a soccer star—three unlikely friends who wouldn’t give up despite the odds and showed that every life is precious and worth preserving.  That, dear friends, is something we should all give a hoot about.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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The Walk by Richard Paul Evans

The Walk

The Walk

Richard Paul Evans (Adult Inspirational)

Alan Christoffersen had it all: a successful advertising agency, a big house, luxury cars, and a beautiful wife who was the love of his life.  But a horrible accident would set off a series of events that would send his world crashing down.  Within weeks, he would lose everything and Alan Christoffersen, the man who had everything, was suddenly left with nothing.  It seemed that even God had abandoned him.  So, Alan decided to walk away from his troubles…literally.  With nothing more than a backpack and a few essentials, Alan set off on a near 3,500 journey stretching from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida hoping that this walk might bring him some clarity to a life that didn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve read many What-would-you-do-if-type books: What would you do if you could live forever?  What would you do if you had one wish?  Go back in time?  Trade places with someone?  Were invisible?  This one was different.  Tackling the idea of how to move forward after you’ve lost everything is daunting.  Alan faced this situation, questioned his own faith, and wondered why love, hope, and grace had been so mercilessly taken from him.

The Walk is the first in a series of five books in The Walk Series by Richard Paul Evans.  This first installment takes Alan all the way across the state of Washington: from Seattle to Spokane.  During this first leg of his journey, he meets several people who remind him what kindness, generosity, and gratitude look like: a handless man looking for answers, a scarred woman offering hope, an innkeeper who faced death, and a stranger returning a favor.  Each person along his journey offers Alan little bits of wisdom and insight and their brief presence in his life leaves him undeniably changed.

The Walk is an easy and quick read.  Evans deals with religion and faith without being overly preachy and gives us a likeable protagonist who seeks the good in humanity although he himself has been betrayed by those he had trusted most.  In the opening pages, we know Alan completes his walk and eventually reaches Key West, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and we know that Alan has a very long journey ahead of him.  A journey that will hopefully answer some of his questions and perhaps even restore his faith.

Alan keeps a diary of his walk.  In one entry, he wrote, “We truly do not know what’s in a book until it is opened.”  Likewise, we often don’t know what’s in a person until we ask or until we have the opportunity to get to know them.  We don’t know their past, the burdens they may carry, or the pain they may be enduring.  The few people that Alan encountered during his walk through Washington began as unopened books, but by extending a kindness or even just a simple greeting, those books began to open and Alan discovered that perhaps the love, hope, and grace that he thought had been denied him had never really abandoned him after all.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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In the Woods by Tana French

In the Woods

In the Woods

Tana French (Adult Mystery)

On August 14, 1984, Jaime Rowan, Adam Ryan, and Peter Savage—all twelve years old—were playing in the surrounding woods of their small Dublin neighborhood of Knocknaree when the unthinkable happened.  Jaime and Peter disappeared and Adam was found in blood-soaked sneakers clinging to a tree with no memory of the event.  Flash forward twenty years and Adam Ryan, now Detective Rob Ryan, is investigating the murder of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin in Knocknaree.  Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, diligently work the case to find Katy’s killer while Ryan grapples with lost memories that may link the two cases together.  But Knocknaree is a small place.  What are the chances that two different child murderers live in the same village?

In the Woods is French’s debut novel and she handily presents an interesting and compelling police procedural.  Clocking in at 429 pages, she manages to hold our interest throughout her novel while creating a slow and steady momentum as our main characters flesh out four different threads of theories and begin peeling back multiple layers on two seemingly-connected murder cases.  Her characters are multi-dimensional and French gives us time to become familiar with them; however, the portrayals are a bit biased since we are seeing everything through Ryan’s eyes, our story’s narrator.  By his own admission, he lies and so we are already aware that throughout the case, we’re going to run into credibility problems.  (Personally, I don’t like unreliable or untrustworthy narrators, but I digress.)  The thing which pleasantly surprised me was the relationship between Ryan and Maddox.  French chose a professional relationship for these two versus the obligatory romantic/sexual conflict that readers often get when presented with a male/female partner pairing.  We see the ease they have around one another, as well as the mutual respect they share.  This platonic relationship allows the reader to concentrate on the case rather than muddy the waters with “will they/won’t they” expectations.

Despite these positives, I found this book fell short on multiple levels.  In the Woods starts off riveting and suspenseful and then—through a series of professional negligence (some folks should have lost their jobs), self-destructive decisions, and just plain sloppiness (or laziness) on the author’s part—the story begins to unravel and disintegrate right before our eyes.  Ryan is not a very likeable guy and he knows this: “I am intensely aware, by the way, that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light.”  More often than not, he comes off as whiny and immature and his love for the bottle (which leads to more hangovers that I could count) makes me wonder how he manages to stay gainfully employed let alone be put in charge of a murder investigation.  Despite his horrifying backstory (which should have earned him at least a few pity points), it was simply impossible for me to connect with Ryan and feel any kind of sympathy for him.  Conversely, Cassie Maddox is bright, intuitive, hardworking, and a much more likeable character, which is probably why Tana French gave her the starring role in her novel’s sequel The Likeness (book two of six in the Dublin Murder Squad series).  Positives and negatives aside, the biggest problem I had with this book is the giant red herring that French made the cornerstone of her story.  I won’t divulge any spoilers, but I will say that by the end of the book, I was left feeling irritated, unsatisfied, and frankly duped.  I did stop myself from throwing the book against the wall so I guess this can be added to the positive column.

In the Woods won several awards and inspired an eight-episode series for the BBC and Starz.  Obviously, a lot of people thought that this novel and its sequel were the greatest thing since the melon baller.  However, between an annoying main character and a plot line that utterly evaporated, I hope to find satisfaction in French’s sequel.  Until then, any closure that I thought I would find in this book will remain elusive for I believe that it is still probably hiding somewhere.  Somewhere in the woods.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (J Historical Fiction)

A Year Down Yonder

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

 It was 1937 and the country was in the midst of what people were calling the Roosevelt recession.  The Dowdel family, like so many others, had hit upon hard times and Mary Alice was to be sent to live with her grandmother until the family got back on their feet.  She and her brother, Joey, had spent many summers with Grandma Dowdel in her sleepy Illinois town, but Mary Alice was fifteen now and this visit was going to be a full twelve months!  With no telephone, an outdoor privy, a spooky attic, and everything being as old as Grandma…if not older…how was a city girl from Chicago going to survive in this hick town for one whole year?

A Year Down Yonder received the Newbery Medal in 2001 and was the sequel to Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago, recipient of a Newbery Honor in 1999.  In this wildly amusing and heartfelt book, Peck delivers one of the most outrageous, audacious, outlandish, and unforgettable characters when he gave us Grandma Dowdel.  She’s trigger-happy (and the whole town knows it) and not afraid to speak her mind.  But behind that gruff and crusty exterior lies a woman who’s generous to a fault and genuinely cares about her neighbors…although she would be the first to deny it.  Peck gives us small-town life and everything that comes with it.  From turkey shoots and Halloween hijinks to Burdicks (you’ll know one when you see ‘em) and burgoo, Grandma Dowdel handles everything with humor and candor and might even treat you to a glass of buttermilk and a square of corn bread in the process.

A Year Down Yonder takes readers to rural America and back to a time where folks learned how to make the most with what little they had and considered themselves blessed if they had their health, their family, and one or two people that could be counted on when it mattered most.  It’s a delightful and amusing book that extolls the virtues of kindness and the importance of family.  It also reminds us not to judge a book by its cover for it is often the tartest apples that make the best pies.  Just ask Grandma Dowdel.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. by Bette Greene (J)

Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe

Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe.

Bette Greene (Juvenile Fiction)

 There are a few things that Elizabeth “Beth” Lorraine Lambert cannot stand: being cheated, allergies, being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl, and giving that low-down dumb bum of a polecat Philip Hall the satisfaction of beating her at anything.  Truth be told, Beth is smart—really, really smart—but when it comes to Philip Hall, she can be kind of a dumb bum, too.  But Philip is the cutest boy at J. T. Williams School and with that dimpled smile…does it really hurt if Beth lets him win at a few things every now and then?

Haven’t most of us, at one time or another, happily played the part of “chump” when it comes to being noticed or liked by someone that we felt was a bit out of our league?  Whether that someone was too good looking, too popular, too smart, too athletic, or just too…well…too.  For one reason or another, we sacrifice self-respect for the opportunity to just be around that person.  Well, our young Beth Lambert is no different, but the good news is, she knows it and better still, she realizes that the long-term rewards that come with being yourself greatly outweigh the temporary benefits of being around someone who’s not even seeing the real you, but rather a lesser, compromised version of you.

I’m always drawn to books that feature plucky female protagonists: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Dovey Coe (Dovey Coe), Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) and Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) are just a few of my favorites.  Girls and young ladies who have a mind of their own and will not yield to societal norms or expectations.  They prove to be intelligent, loyal, resilient, principled, and brave.  Beth Lambert is one such girl who not only stands up to turkey thieves and an unscrupulous store owner, but also to her own insecurities that tell her that she has to be inferior in order to gain and keep a friendship.  Lucky for us, she realizes the error of her ways and evolves into the kind of young lady that she was meant to be.

Bette Greene shows us the power of believing in ourselves and the gift that comes when someone we respect and admire has faith in us.  Beth received such support from her doctor and the few words of encouragement that he offered her allowed Beth to see the possibilities that awaited her and to explore the opportunities that she thought were well out of her reach.  I enjoyed Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. and cheered as our Beth evolved from being a pleaser to an assertive and confident girl that anyone would fall in love with.  Even a low-down dumb bum of a polecat like Philip Hall.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

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Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Tuesdays with Morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie

Mitch Albom (Adult Memoir)

 It was to be professor Morrie Schwartz’s final class.  A class with no grades, no textbooks, and no final exam.  Weekly oral exams were required and a long paper on what was learned was expected (a kiss good-bye earned an extra credit).  The subject would be The Meaning of Life and the class would cover such topics as family, work, aging, forgiveness, love, and death.  It would last fourteen weeks (fourteen Tuesdays to be exact), be held after breakfast, and would have just one pupil—a former student by the name of Mitch Albom who had lost his way somehow.  Thanks to Ted Koppel, Mitch found his way again because he had found Morrie Schwartz.

Tuesdays with Morrie reminded me of John Gunther’s 1949 memoir Death Be Not Proud.  Both were a celebration of life and showed us what true courage, grace, peace, and humility look like.  Mitch Albom provides us with an honest, candid, and raw account of his beloved professor’s last weeks on earth as he battles and eventually succumbs to the ravages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  His account of his time with Morrie is heartbreaking and humorous, tragic and hopeful, and gives us a precious glimpse into the life of a man who accepted his fate with dignity and generosity.  By openly sharing his steady decline with Albom and by conducting several interviews on national television, Morrie cast modesty and privacy aside with the hope that those touched by his story may cherish the time that they have been given and re-evaluate what was truly most important in life.

Throughout his memoir, Albom blesses us with many of Morrie’s aphorisms: “Do the kinds of things that come from the heart.”; “Love each other or perish.”; “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”; and his last one, “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.”  Albom’s story of his former professor and friend is bittersweet because we know how the story is going to end.  With each turn of the page, we understand that we’re getting closer to Morrie’s final day and although we hope that never turning another page might mean that Morrie could somehow avoid death, we know that isn’t possible and that his fate has already been determined and carried out.

Tuesdays with Morrie explores humanity and what it means to be a part of humankind.  Although published in 1997, Morrie’s insights and observations ring just as true today as they did almost twenty-five years ago.  Back then, while society was caught up with Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the trial of O. J. Simpson, Morrie said to Albom, “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves.  And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”  How unfortunate that this is just as relevant today as it was nearly a quarter of a century ago.

In his final weeks, scores of Morrie’s former students traveled domestically and internationally for the chance to visit their favorite professor one final time.  Morrie knew, better than anyone, that the role of educator carries a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence.  In death, as I imagine it was true in life, Morrie gave each one of his visitors his undivided attention and made them feel like they were the most important thing in the world.  He made everyone feel important, special, and loved.  That was Morrie’s legacy and his hope for the future.  That everyone would feel good about themselves.

At one time or another, we’ve all had a favorite teacher, camp counselor, or coach who had a profound impact on the way we wanted to model ourselves as adults.  They encouraged, supported, and challenged us and their influence will always be a part of us.  But what we often fail to realize, and what Albom reminds us of, is the effect that we—as students, campers, or athletes—have had on their lives as well.  The gestures of appreciation, the thirst for knowledge, the desire to please is just as important and meaningful.  It’s a fragile circle that can be strengthened with a simple “Thank You” or weakened with a harsh word.  But through Morrie and Mitch, we’re shown just how joyful this unique bond and relationship can be and even though graduations and retirements come and go, the learning—the loving—never stops.  As Morrie said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”  Well said, Professor.  Class dismissed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (J)

Call it Courage

Call It Courage

Armstrong Sperry (Juvenile Fiction)

 It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart.  But even today the people of Hikueru sing the story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires.  It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.

Fifteen-year-old Mafatu was afraid of the sea.  He’s had this fear for as long as he could remember.  His father, Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikeuru, was ashamed of him for his people were great seafarers who worshipped courage.  There was no room—no tolerance—for cowardice.  It’s no wonder that Mafatu felt alone and out of place.  Angry and ashamed, Mafatu sets off one night in a canoe with his dog, Uri, and his albatross, Kivi, as his only companions.  His father had christened him “Stout Heart” upon his birth and Mafatu was determined to earn that name…or perish trying.

Armstrong Sperry’s Call It Courage was the recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1941.  Although there are mentions of Maui (God of the Fishermen) and Moana (the Sea God) and even Maui’s famed fishhook, Disney fans shouldn’t confuse this book with the movie about a spunky Polynesian princess.  Rather, it is more along the lines of Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newbery Medal recipient) by Scott O’Dell, but told from a boy’s perspective.  If you enjoyed O’Dell’s book, you’ll most likely enjoy Sperry’s as well.

Sperry gives readers the story of a boy who not only has to deal with his own fears and shortcomings, but has to do so under the weight of being the island chief’s son.  To be a coward amongst people who worship heroism is one thing, but add the burden of being the island’s heir apparent and you’ve got quite a heavy load.  As the ridicule—especially from one who was seemingly a friend—intensifies, we see Mafatu being crushed under its unforgiving and unrelenting weight day after day until he sees no other alternative but to flee his homeland in search of courage and worth.

Call It Courage is fast-paced, tense, and suspenseful due to its numerous forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate/Supernatural, and Man vs. Self.  Like in Island of the Blue Dolphins, we have a smart protagonist who relies heavily on wit and skill to survive.  The mundane tasks that Mafatu was assigned while on Hikueru are quickly utilized and performed with speed and skill.  Rushes or lapses in judgement could mean death so we see Mafatu being patient, deliberate, calculating, and thoughtful in all of his decision making.  Books (especially for younger readers) could use more characters like this.

Sperry delivers a powerful message in a very short book (mine was only 92 pages).  He shows us a boy who despite his insecurity, frailty, and vulnerability, is capable of doing rather extraordinary things.  Whether you call it courage, impulse, or instinct, Mafatu discovers his inner strength which allows him to begin believing in himself.  Famed American pianist Liberace once said, “Nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself.”  Mafatu, along with a yellow dog and a gimpy albatross, found the courage to believe in himself and I would call that pretty remarkable.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio by Lloyd Alexander (J Fantasy)

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

Lloyd Alexander (Juvenile Fantasy)

 If you were to ask Evariste what he thought of his nephew, Carlo Chuchio, he would say that the lad was nothing more than a thankless, dimwitted daydreamer.  A “chooch”.  And perhaps he was right.  Having an uncle who was an importer, Carlo spent his days loitering at the docks and imagining places waiting to be visited and explored—places far beyond his home in Magenta.  Adventure, as fate would have it, was a lot closer than Carlo had imagined for when he happened upon a bookseller in the market, he was offered a book of fantastic tales.  Stories of magic carpets and genies in lamps and caves filled with treasure.  But this particular book didn’t just contain wondrous stories, it also hid a map with the most intriguing and irresistible two words that Carlo could ever imagine: “Royal Treasury”.  Soon, Carlo would be embarking on a journey that involved an unlikely set of traveling companions…all heading to Cathai and the fabled “Road of Golden Dreams”.

Lloyd Alexander takes readers on a magical journey filled with suspense, danger, mishaps, missteps, humor, and romance.  Although there’s no flying carpet or bottled genie, there is plenty to delight and entertain readers of any age.  At the heart of this story is young Carlo Chuchio, a dreamer filled with integrity who would not let his desire to be held in high regard outweigh his need to do the right thing.  He soon realizes the burden of having a conscience, but the blessing that comes with listening to it.

Along Carlo’s journey, he meets up with a delightful set of companions.  Baksheesh, a camel-puller, proves to be an invaluable adviser and is always ready with a fast line or two in order to escape trouble…or work.  There’s quiet and observant Salamon, who is childlike in his eagerness, curiosity, and joy when discovering something new.  Then there’s Sira, who is not what she appears to be.  She bears a tragic past and although her heart is filled with vengeance and heartache, perhaps there’s still a bit of room left for love.  Together, the group encounters ruffians, warlords, a dream merchant, a painter, rivaling tribes, armies, a horse master, and perhaps the most repugnant of them all, a storyteller.  While encountering danger and death at almost every turn, our ragtag troupe reminds us that it is often cunning and cleverness that have a sharper edge and can cut just as deep as any saber or tulwar.

Of all the characters in this book, it is Salamon who is perhaps my favorite.  He is a kind and gentle man of few words, but when he does offer up some advice or wisdom, they are balm to the soul.  When Carlo was unsure about what his future held, Salamon replied, “What remains to be seen is always the most interesting.”  And when Carlo was telling Salamon about his quest for treasure, Salamon came up with a gem of his own: “As if a fortune could make up for the bother of gaining it.  No, no, my lad: The journey is the treasure.”

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio teaches us so many lessons: not to judge a book by its cover, the virtues found by putting your faith in the untrustworthy, or the comfort gained from seeking hope amongst the impossible.  But above all, Lloyd Alexander gives us a wonderful and exciting story about a boy who discovers all the possibilities and treasure that the world has to offer all because one day, he seized upon the remarkable opportunity to open up a book.  How much richer can you possibly get?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka (Adult Historical Fiction)

They came from all over Japan: Yamaguchi, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Yamanashi, and Kagoshima.  Most were virgins ranging in age from just fourteen to thirty-seven years old.  Some came from the city and wore stylish clothes while those from the country wore patched and re-dyed kimonos.  They all came—from the mountains to the seashore—to board a boat that would take them to America.  All were going with a promise and a picture.  All were leaving to marry.

Julie Otsuka writes about the “picture brides” (similar to mail-order brides) of the early 1900s who, through a matchmaker and family recommendations, traveled from Japan to marry a fellow countryman in America.  The families of the brides were often influenced by money, the brides went to escape poverty and held dreams of a better life, and the grooms were looking for companionship while reaping the benefit of an extra pair of working hands.  The women quickly realized the folly of their aspirations and that their lives as migrant workers would define them as no better than slaves.  The promises of a picture showing a smiling young man with a hat in his hands standing in front of a white picket fence were quickly replaced with beatings, curfews, and living conditions often unfit for an animal.

Otsuka presents these women’s stories in eight sections: Boat Ride, First Night, Whites, Babies, The Children, Traitor, Last Day, and A Disappearance.  She takes her readers from the initial journey to America and then through marriage and childbirth and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps. We are dragged through an emotional gauntlet yet these disturbing and deeply personal stories lack any kind of emotional teeth.  There’s simply nothing to really sink in to due to the choice of the author’s writing style.  Otsuka opts to tell her story through first-person collective.  Because she paints her story using very wide brushstrokes, we are presented with anywhere from six to twelve lives in the span of a single paragraph.  She sacrifices depth for breadth and we end up with prose that reads more like a bulleted presentation.  When describing the dreams of the women’s children, she writes, “One wanted to save up money to buy his own farm.  One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father.  One wanted to become anything but.  One wanted to plant a vineyard. One wanted to start his own label.  One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch.”  And on and on.  The vast majority of the book is like this with sentences starting off with “Some of us” or “Most of us” or Many of us”.  Only briefly are we allowed some glimpse into the humanity of these women when we get flashes of names like Akiko, Kazuko, Chiyo, and Makiyo.  The only time we really get a sense of mourning and loss, ironically enough, is when the Japanese had been driven from their communities and it is their American neighbors who are left to deal with their absence and loss.  As they recollect memories of their displaced Japanese neighbors, only then do we get a sense as to who these people were and the impact they had on those around them.

I feel that Otsuka really missed an opportunity by choosing to tell an anonymous and faceless story.  Without some figures to latch on to, we fail to form any kind of connection with these women and their ill-fated lives.  I feel nothing would have been lost and so much more would have been gained had she decided to focus on three or four individual women and allowed us to follow each of their separate journeys.  We would have been able to hope, dream, despair, and mourn with them as they tried to navigate a world that was often cruel, unforgiving, and unfair.  Instead, we got Polaroids rather than a movie.  We got one-dimensional versus 3D.  We got an indistinguishable group and not a living, breathing person.

The title of this book refers to what these women had to leave behind.  Instead, it might have been nicer to focus on what these women carried with them: not just a lifetime of pain and hurt and sorrow, but also an abundance of hope and honor and resilience.  These women slaved and birthed and suffered and endured because to do otherwise would have brought dishonor to their family and to themselves.  Former hi-tech executive and mentor, Peter Strople wrote, “Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”  I am grateful for Julie Otsuka for bringing the stories of the “picture brides” to light and although this particular book didn’t resonate with me, these women deserve to have their stories heard so that their legacy is not confined to the written page, but rather should live on within our hearts.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Onion John by Joseph Krumgold (J)

Onion John

Onion John

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Andy Rusch is a junior to his father’s senior and that carries a lot of weight and responsibility.  Seems that Andy’s father has big plans for him: working for General Magneto this summer, studying at MIT, being an engineer, and maybe one day going to the moon!  But all Andy wants to do is work in the family’s hardware store, play baseball, and hang out with his best friend, Onion John.  Not many people can understand Onion John, but Andy does.  Onion John is a beloved fixture in the small town of Serenity, New Jersey.  He lives a simple life in his stacked-stone house filled with bathtubs and has his own ideas about how to make apples grow bigger or how to make it rain.  Onion John’s fanciful ways clash with Andy’s father who wants his son to be practical and realistic.  But how can a boy possibly choose between his best friend and his father?  And what happens when your best friend starts to become friends with your father?  Up until that point, the worst thing that had ever happened was when Eechee Ries was pulled from the pond and worked over by the Pulmotor.

Joseph Krumgold was the first writer to have been awarded the Newbery Medal twice.  The first was for his 1954 novel …and now Miguel (which I read and really enjoyed) and he did it again in 1960 with this book.  If written today, Onion John would still hold the same strong themes of standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself, and accepting people for who they are and not for who you would like them to be.  However, if you were pitching a story about a twelve-year-old boy befriending an unintelligible adult male who lives on the outskirts of town in a stone house today, it would clearly be a hard sell and, in all honesty, tend to come off as a bit creepy.  But in 1959, it was simply a story about an unlikely friendship and the virtues of believing in yourself.

In addition to the strong bond Andy builds with Onion John—which eventually spills over and affects his relationship with his father—there is the project that the entire town adopts for the benefit of their most cherished citizen…Onion John.  This is Krumgold providing a social commentary on how society tries to fit everyone into a convenient box and does so under the pretext of personal betterment.  He makes you challenge the nature of charity and poses the question: “When is doing good not really good?”  The people of Serenity wanted to do something very magnanimous for Onion John with the assumption that their efforts would make his life happier, easier, and better.  But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell and those subtleties tend to get in the way all for the sake of benevolence.

Joseph Krumgold packs so many wonderful lessons and moments in this book that it’s hard to choose just one to highlight for this review: Andy’s coming of age, Andy challenging his father, the town’s collective awakening, Andy’s father’s personal redemption, Andy’s deepening bond with his father.  These are all worth further discussion, but I chose one that particularly resonated with me and that was Onion John’s ability to listen.  How often are we talking to someone who is busy texting or reading or cleaning or something-ing and you’ll pause only to have them say, “Go ahead.  I’m listening.”  With Onion John, he would stop everything in order to let you know that at that moment, you were the singular, most important thing in the world.  There was absolutely nothing more important in life at that moment than you.  As Andy described, “One thing about Onion John, whatever he was doing, if someone came along he was always ready to stop and talk things over.”  What a rare quality it is to find someone who is able to put life on pause in order to afford another human being the courtesy of their undivided attention.  American journalist and author Krista Tippett wrote, “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”  Perhaps that is why only Andy could understand Onion John and no one else could.  He was present.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all learn how to listen like that?

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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