The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (Adult Fiction)

The House on Mango Street   

Sandra Cisneros (Adult Fiction)

The house on Mango Street wasn’t what Papa had talked about when he held up a lottery ticket or what Mama had dreamed up for our bedtime stories. Instead, it was small and red with crumbling bricks and no front yard. Even a nun, who was passing by the house one day, couldn’t believe that it was actually the home of little Esperanza. It was at that moment that Esperanza knew that she had to have a house. One with stairs on the inside and a front yard with grass. One that was filled with quiet. Quiet like snow. A home all her own.

Published in 1984, Cisneros’s celebrated The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story about 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero, a Chicana girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. Comprising of 44 vignettes and being just a squeak above a novelette, Cisneros introduces us to several memorable characters who are the color, texture, and fabric that make up Mango Street. We meet the rotten Vargas kids, Alicia who studies to avoid a life in a factory or behind a rolling pin, Darius the philosopher, Sally with the Cleopatra eyes, and Geraldo who was so much more than a shiny shirt and green pants. But as is the nature of vignettes, our knowledge and connection with these and other characters are superficial and barely scratch the surface. Like a movie trailer, we get the highlights, but not the heart.

In her introduction—which I loved and wished that the rest of the book had been this immersive and rooted—Cisneros wrote that she wanted to write a book “that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who doesn’t know what came before or what comes after.” I think that was the biggest barrier for me to overcome. While accomplishing her goal, Cisneros sacrificed a connectedness that would have given readers more than just a superficial glance at characters who did have a before and, more importantly, an after. I wanted to know Sally’s after, who married to be free yet ultimately found herself in a different prison. I wanted to understand Geraldo’s before in hopes that someone would miss this charismatic young man who loved to dance.

Although I miss the richness of the novel that could have been, I can’t deny the beautiful and artful way Cisneros evokes raw emotion and vivid images with just a few well-placed words. She describes a family who enters a garden area between her building and a brick wall as “a family who speak like guitars”, equates the entry into womanhood by describing the sudden development of hips as “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?”, and recalls meeting her three aunts as “one with laughter like tin and one with eyes of a cat and one with hands like porcelain.”

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a Danish businessman and the former CEO of the Lego Group, said, “Any creative people are finding that creativity doesn’t grow in abundance, it grows from scarcity.” Now, he was talking about Legos and how having more doesn’t necessarily equate to more creativity, but it does show how a novella, not quite 18,000 words, is beautiful and creative because of its scarcity rather than in spite of it.

Rating: 4/5

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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

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Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (J)

Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull    

Maia Wojciechowska (Juvenile Fiction)

When Manolo was nine he became aware of three important facts in his life.  First: the older he became, the more he looked like his father. Second: he, Manolo Olivar, was a coward.  Third: everyone in the town of Arcangel expected him to grow up to be a famous bullfighter, like his father.

To be a bullfighter was to be revered for a bullfighter was a hero, a magician, and a killer of death.  In Arcangel, death came in the form of a bull and to conquer death brought glory to yourself, your family, and your country.  Manolo was the son of Juan Olivar, the greatest bullfighter in Spain.  Ever since his father’s death, everyone anxiously awaited the day when Manolo would take his father’s place and Spain would once again have a hero.  But unlike his father, Manolo’s future was not prophesied for greatness and he worried that his heart would never allow him to live up to the expectations of his town or the legacy left by his father.

Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull (winner of the 1965 Newberry Award) is a book brimming with valuable lessons and important messages of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-importance.  She encourages the reader to question the idea of heroes and those we choose to idolize—the celebrated sports figure or the wizened town physician—and she shows us the emotional and physical price of sacrificing your own future in order to carry on someone else’s.  She writes of life versus death, bravery versus fear, and a dream versus destiny.  It’s a lot to take in, but Wojciechowska lays out all of these issues as smoothly as a matador works his cape.

Shadow of a Bull is rich in its history and detail regarding the art of bullfighting.  Readers will learn the training involved and will be introduced to several Spanish terms (pronunciation guide and definitions are included at the back of the book).   It’s an effective primer for the sport that may test the patience of a few readers, but proves interesting nonetheless.  Above all else, Wojciechowska doesn’t let us forget that the heart of this book is young Manolo, a boy wishing to bring honor to his family by fulfilling a future that is beyond his desire or control.  He carries the hopes and dreams of an entire country on his very small shoulders and we feel the weight of this burden grow heavier as the day of his testing nears.  It’s a beautifully told coming-of-age story of a boy trying to discover his place in the world.

Walter M. Schirra, Sr.—a fighter pilot during World War I and father of Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs—once said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons.  And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.”  By being true to himself, Manolo found honor beyond the shadow of a bull and was able to become a hero in his own right.

Rating: 5/5

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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Heidi W. Durrow (Adult Fiction)

Rachel Morse is eleven years old and living with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Oregon.  Born to a Danish mother and an African-American GI father, she finds herself caught between two very different worlds and struggles to find a place somewhere in the middle.  However, it is the early 1980s and Rachel is often forced to choose between black and white: “I see people two different ways now: people who look like me and people who don’t look like me.”  She builds her world around “last-time things” (like speaking Danish or saying Mor, which means mother) and “first-time things” (like feeling shame or excluded) and lives each day storing her anger and hurt inside an imaginary bottle.  Fighting against a tragic past and facing an uncertain future, will Rachel have to give up one part of herself in order to embrace the other?

Durrow gives us a haunting and heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a biracial girl desperately trying to find her place in the world.  Like Rachel, Durrow’s mother was Danish, her father was a black serviceman, and she possesses a set of piercing-blue eyes.  We can see what Durrow must have dealt with as we see Rachel longing to fit in and be accepted.  Rachel’s backstory is tragic and unimaginable and one can only imagine the inner strength our young heroine possesses in order to avoid a fate like her mother’s.  The beginning of the book is a little confusing as Durrow floods the reader with several characters in various situations across different points in time.  The storyline eventually smooths out, but then you begin to understand the meaning behind the title.  This launches the story in an unpredictable direction and the pace never slows from there.

Perhaps the most distressing storyline belongs to Nella, Rachel’s mother.  A Danish immigrant, she is unused to the treatment her biracial children face in America (her marriage was generally accepted in Europe).  As a mother, she loves her children unconditionally and vows to protect them at all costs.  She is broken by the injustices thrown at her children and wonders why people are unable to see her children as she does: “My children are one half of black.  They are also one half of me.  I want them to be anything.  They are not just a color that people see.”

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is haunting and harrowing.  It is not one of those feel-good books that is wrapped up in a pretty bow.  Instead, we are given a story that is raw and poignant and uncomfortably ugly but honest.  Under anyone else’s pen, the reader might be left with a sense of hopelessness, but Durrow is, in a sense, telling us her own story which, at its very core, is a story of survival.  A story where a girl refuses to be boiled down to simply this or that.  She is more than just the sum of her parts and her acceptance of this is enough to give us a relatively satisfying ending.  As Rachel says, “I’m not the new girl.  I’m not the color of my skin.  I’m a story.  One with a past and a future unwritten.”  And with that, the girl who fell from the sky realized that she had wings and could fly.

Rating: 4/5

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…and now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (J)

And Now Miguel

…and now Miguel    

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

“I am Miguel.  For most people it does not make so much difference that I am Miguel.  But for me, often, it is a very great trouble.”

Twelve-year-old Miguel is a Chavez and in the Chavez family there is always one thing—sheep.  To raise sheep is the work of the family.  Wherever you find a Chavez man, you’ll find a flock of sheep.  Miguel lives near Taos, New Mexico and is straddled between two brothers who have it easy: little Pedro is small and has all that he wants and big brother Gabriel is old enough that anything he wants he can get.  But being Miguel is not so easy.  What he wants, what he truly desires, is to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the Chavez men take the sheep to graze each summer.  But year after year, Miguel is left behind.  How can he prove to his father that he is finally ready for this responsibility?  But since he is only Miguel, he knows that this will not be an easy thing to do.

…and now Miguel is based on actual people whom Krumgold spent time with and got to know.  Hearing him tell Miguel’s story and his desire to prove himself worthy to a father he adores and respects is intimate and personal.  The reader deeply connects with Miguel as he attempts to be needed and longs to make a difference.  Miguel’s biggest obstacle is not his will or desire, but simply time.  As his mother once said to him, “To become something different from what you are, it takes more than being strong.  Even a little time is needed as well.”  How often do we find ourselves pursuing opportunities that we know we aren’t ready for?

This story has so many positive messages and relatable situations for young readers (aged ten and above).  Unfortunately, it does lag quite a bit near the end when Miguel and Gabriel discuss the strengths and weaknesses of making a wish, which is actually the two coming into their own spiritual awakening through the recognition of Devine intervention and providence.  This was a weighty and lengthy dialogue between the two that could have been greatly condensed and had the same effect.  Although this is a pivotal moment for the two brothers, the momentum of the story ultimately suffered and was never able to fully recover.

Miguel reminds us that things don’t always go the way we wish or plan for life always seems to get in the way somehow.  Big surprises or unexpected announcements are never delivered or received in the way in which we hope.  Miguel is a deeply devoted boy who, in the end, realizes that his life—his fate—is not in his control.  He must rely on his faith in knowing that everything will work out as it should.  His mother and father understand this, Gabriel understands this…and now Miguel will understand this and will realize that by him just being Miguel has already made a great difference.

Rating: 4/5

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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

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Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

Captains Courageous

Rudyard Kipling (Adult Fiction)

Harvey Cheyne is the spoiled, arrogant, and disrespectful son of a railway tycoon who, while on his way to Europe to complete his schooling, falls overboard into the Atlantic Ocean.  He is rescued by a fisherman and taken aboard the schooner We’re Here, where he quickly realizes that money, power, and social status matter little on the high seas.  Under the watchful eye of Captain Disko Troop, Harvey soon navigates his way not only through perilous oceans, but also through the turbulent lessons that come with life.

This is perhaps one of the finest stories about life on the sea ever written.  Kipling’s narration is masterful and the storytelling is superb.  The details of life on board a schooner are painstakingly described and detailed—right down to the last eye-bolt.  Every word is carefully chosen and crafted and the result is nothing short of poetic: “The dories gathered in clusters, separated, reformed, and broke again, all heading one way; while men hailed and whistled and cat-called and sang, and the water was speckled with rubbish thrown overboard.”

This book is truly deserving of the word “classic”; however, Kipling’s passion for authenticity often makes reading dialogue difficult at times.  His phonetic transcription of a New England dialect in the late 1800s is often tricky to decipher and comprehend (“furriner” for “foreigner”, “naow” for “now”, and “spile” for “spoil”), but it is this same commitment to genuineness that allows the reader to be wholly transported into a world dictated by the weather and ruled by the sea.  A coming-of-age book about loyalty, friendship, and love that truly gets better with time.

Rating: 5/5