Happy summer! I have to admit it’s excellent to contemplate the end of school. My daughter had her 7th grade year (need I say more?), and my son another year adjusting and readjusting to his learning style. I will be glad for them both that they can relax and do what few people seem to do anymore: nothing. Hanging out, looking like you’re staring into space, imagining a world of your choosing.
My family was joking in the car the other day about how someday maybe my shop would be a museum-like stop on people’s search for antiques and depictions about the way life used to be. A book shop full of paper books would be like the Sturbridge Village of my childhood field trips, where people in Shaker village costumes showed us how people made butter, quilted, and entertained themselves in the “olden” days. People have begun to ask me whether I am going to start selling e-books. I muse on an interview with Sherman Alexie, in which he said:
"Have you ever fallen in love with somebody, a stranger, just because of the book they happened to be reading? And what about the recent awe of walking onto an airplane and seeing that forty or fifty people are reading the same Harry Potter novel? How many times have you talked to a stranger just because they happened to be reading a great book, an eccentric book, a book that you arrogantly thought that only you and the author and his or her mother had ever read? That's not possible with a Kindle.”
I hope you enjoy this newsletter after a brief hiatus this spring. I wish you all a peaceful, quiet, boring summer of watching the bird feeder, listening to the frogs and geese, and blowing off your chores.
Ani’s Winter & Spring Reads by Ani Graves, 13
I’ve read lots of books, both serious and funny, in the last few months, and they’ve all been great. I’ve been getting books from the Astoria High School library that the librarians pick out for me, and they’re always funny. (Mom says “Thanks library ladies!”)
Notes from the Midnight Driver, by Jordan Sonnenblick, is a hilarious yet very deep book. When 16-year-old Alex gets drunk, sneaks out in his mom’s car, and gets in a crash, beheading a garden gnome, his life gets even more complicated. With his parents divorced, his dad threatening to move out of the state, and his court trial for drunk driving coming up, Alex is overwhelmed. He gets sentenced to 100 hours of community service at a nursing home working with a grouchy old man. With encouragement from his best friend Laurie and the distraction of his new electric guitar, Alex and Solomon (the old man) become very good friends. They help each other out in every way, and Sol will reveal a secret that Alex never would have guessed…
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, is a great book by a great writer. I’ve read a few others and loved them all. This book shows what it’s really like being an Indian. Junior is an Indian boy living on a reservation. He has medical problems, and is picked on by everyone except his best friend. When Junior decides that he’s had enough of everything, he starts attending a school with only white kids. It’s really hard for him to fit in, and to add to the tension, his best friend on the reservation hates him now for ditching their school. Everyone at the reservation except his family seems to have turned against him. Junior finds confidence in himself and even makes friends at his new school. This book is very funny, but shows the reality of hardships that Indians have.
Peeps, and its sequel, The Last Days, by Scott Westerfeld, are really good books. Scott Westerfeld is an awesome, funny writer. In Peeps, 19-year-old Cal is a parasite positive, or vampire – a peep for short. Cal’s job is to find people who have been turned into peeps and help them overcome the worst symptoms. When he meets Lace and reveals his secret, she helps him discover a huge cult of rat peeps, and they discover something unheard of (if you just can’t get enough of the vampire thing…).
Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger, is a well-written book. 11-year-old Rueben has a great life, despite his bad asthma. When two troublemaking teenagers break into his house and threaten his family, things get bad. One night they take it too far. Reuben’s brother Davy ends up in jail for defending his family, breaks out, and disappears. Reuben, his dad, and his sister Swede head out in their camper looking for Davy and there the adventures begin.
Ttyl (talk to you later), ttfn (tat ta for now), and l8r g8r (later, gator), by Lauren Myracle, are all in one of the best series I have read in a long time. They’re written in a very interesting style – the instant messages going between three great friends in high school. Angela (SnowAngel) who is always happy, Zoe (zoegirl) the good girl, and Maddie (mad maddie), who is wild and outgoing, are always together, always talking. They go through some tough times and hard situations, but always figure it out. Some are sidesplitting, some are heartbreaking, but the three friends always make up and get everything figured out.
Books for the “Middle-Aged” by Laura
Describing people like me as middle-aged is silly. I am an adult, have been for a couple of decades, and will (hopefully) continue on this path for a couple of more. Being a young teenager, however, seems to me to be the Middle Age. You are not a kid and you are not an adult. I have a pile of books with young protagonists, beautiful writing, and both relatability and an intellectual challenge for the reader. The trick is, then, to convince said middle-aged folk that they really do want to read the books that their mother suggests to them… Therein lies the middle age conundrum. Ani read Anne Frank’s diary recently. Though she chose not to review it, I think it’s a necessary and compelling read. To Kill a Mockingbird deserves strong mention as well.
Michael Dorris’ classic, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, is the coming of age story of half black, half Indian, fifteen-year-old Rayona. Set in the harsh, wintry, yet beautiful Montana landscape, it is a hard, haunting, redemptive story of three generations of women.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees is one of my favorites to recommend when a young person is just too old and sophisticated for the kids’ section in the back. Taylor Greer is an independent minded teenager who leaves her Kentucky home in a beat up Volkswagen Beetle, with her mom’s blessing, at least after Mom takes off all the tires and makes sure Taylor knows how to put them back on. The adventure turns serious when a Cherokee woman hands Taylor her baby and disappears, and Taylor must muster her spirit and strength to appreciate the difficult gifts of her unexpected motherhood.
Bee Season remains a longtime favorite of mine. Myla Goldberg, pretty young herself when she wrote this lovely novel, is spot on in her portrayal of the world of competitive spelling bees. I got fascinated with watching the National Spelling Bee after reading it, and was amazed, appalled, and enthralled by the stress of it. Nine-year-old Eliza Nauman finds her own remedy to stress in this engaging novel of family, religion, and spelling bee stress.
I know years ago there was a small uproar (pre-Oprah even) about Forrest Carter’s beautiful memoir The Education of Little Tree, but the questions about whether or not it’s true have never distracted me from the beauty of this story of a Cherokee boyhood. If you can convince a young teenager to have some read aloud time this is a stunningly beautiful book to read aloud. My memories of reading a chapter a night of this on the deck of a boat at sea are priceless.
Briefly, because there are so many of these “middle age” selections, I will mention Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, one of my favorite novels, and a coming of age story in as distinctive a culture as many of us will ever encounter – that of orthodox Judaism in early 20th century Brooklyn, New York.
Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, from the point of view of an autistic teenaged boy dealing with life’s challenges through his very unique lens, shimmers and explodes off the pages. Whether autism is a particular interest or not, the intensity of this first person narrative amazed me.
Random Reads by Laura
I was going to write about Flight on the previous page, but thought I’d better put it here. Ani loved it, and I read it, and thought wow, that is pretty mature for a kid who’s not a kid and not a grown-up. Sherman Alexie unbottles a lot of anger here, along with a lot of love if you’re patient. Zits (yes, Zits) is an angry 15-year-old foster kid many times over, his violent, turbulent skin a graphic metaphor for his anger and pain. Possibly Ani was taken with the time travel, possibly with Alexie’s winningly perfect writing – I’m proud to say my daughter is an accurate connoisseur of quality writing. In any case, caution to younger readers: the language and situations are as you would imagine from the point of view of an angry teenaged foster kid. Still, it’s in the end a beautiful story of our potential as people.
Nic Sheff’s memoir Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines will do its job as a total turnoff for any person tempted to try meth. It’s billed as a book for young adults, for the obvious lessons within, but be forewarned here as well about language and difficult situations. I found it compelling, and needed to read it after I read the beautiful and poignant memoir by Sheff’s father David Sheff, which documents Nic’s addiction as well but from his father’s point of view. Both Tweak and Beautiful Boy are eye-opening stories that taught me (yet again) to check my judgements and assumptions at the door.
It was difficult to pick up Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir but I’m glad I did. This wonderful novelist writes in An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination about the death of her baby boy just before he was due to be born. There is only so much one can read about a subject like this, but from McCracken it is quite real and quite beautiful. She faces her pain head on and helps us understand, if just a little bit. Well worth reading.
I feel like my new obsession with Richard Price will cause some literate people to sigh with exasperation, kind of an adult “Well, duh….” Lush Life was the most outstanding vacation book choice I’ve made in years. Sadly I found myself rationing it, as my other picks didn’t pan out so well. I have never read such true dialogue, such perfect characterizations of city cops, “perps,” urban hipsters, and the whole fraught community of lower Manhattan seething with tension. I also read Freedomland, and found it equally satisfying, though much more sad than ironic. Price “gets” people in that same razor-like way that Tana French (In the Woods), John Burdett (Bangkok 8), and yes, John Irving, “get” people. If you know me, you know a bigger compliment I could not pay him.
If you ask me what is the best setting for a novel, these days I’d have to answer New York City. Adam Mansbach’s gem of a novel The End of the Jews situates its characters in the true melting pot of greater New York City. In no other setting could Mansbach’s characters come together in such rich and interesting ways. He links the lives of Nina, a young Czech photographer, Tristan, an aspiring writer steeped in hip hop culture, and Nina’s and Tristan’s parents and grandparents in an epic and poignant treatise on love and art.
I loved A Country Called Home, by Kim Barnes. It’s a quiet, small novel about an adventurous and idealistic couple that moves from the city to a remote piece of land in Idaho. After the birth of her daughter, the woman is paralyzed by loneliness and isolation, craving both people and the creature comforts she left behind. The story turns in surprising and powerful ways, and Kim Barnes (In the Wilderness) evokes the Idaho landscape and those who love it incredibly beautifully.
Poetry is an on-again-off-again love of mine, and I’m way on right now after reading an amazing New Yorker article about and then the collections of identical twin poets from Portland, Oregon. Matthew and Michael Dickman are yin yang poets, close, close brothers and compatriots, and fascinating chroniclers of urban life, in very different and beautiful ways. Matthew’s wild and exuberant language spoke more clearly to me than Michael’s, which is concise and spare. I loved Matthew’s collection All-American Poem, and as always, am storing poems away for my holiday book group poetry swap. Maybe we should share poetry more frequently – ladies? Michael’s collection The End of the West is equally powerful in a very different way.
Brie’s Spring Favorites
Several years ago a man and his daughter were reportedly living in Forest Park in Portland for nearly four years. Now local author Peter Rock has re-imagined their lives in his new novel My Abandonment. Thirteen-year-old Caroline narrates her secretive existence in the woods with her father, detailing their habits and her unconventional but effective schooling. Their alternative lifestyle requires a combination of paranoid vigilance and free spirited will. Once discovered, their lives take a turn through society with startling effects that bring Caroline’s father’s mental fragility into focus. Striking out on their own again, away from civilization, things go from bad to worse. As Caroline gets older, the lifestyle choices she makes are a product of her childhood. My Abandonment is riveting, as the story edges along between psychosis and free will and in the end questions where the line between the two is drawn.
Man Booker Prize winner The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, is a novel as rare as its title. The entire novel is formed as a letter to the Premier of China and gives a hilarious and heartbreaking account of Balram Halwei’s life. Descending from the baking class, Balram has scored a job driving the “air conditioned egg” around India for his master. It is hard to decide if the roads of Delhi or dealing with his master’s privileged and temperamental family require more dangerous negotiations. As this self-proclaimed “half-baked Indian” philosophizes and rants, you also get a feel for the geography, politics, and contradictory social norms of India. The White Tiger is a fictional masterpiece offering a character at once conflicted, angry, compromised, and dangerous; yet I found myself cheering him all the way to the end.
Summer Reading for ‘Tweens & Teens
No promise of advanced intellectualism here, but I will promise fun. Which is what summer reading is for, isn’t it?
Ani emailed me: “The House of Night series, by P.C. and Kristin Cast, is one of the better vampire series I’ve read (ed.: this is saying A LOT). In the first book, Marked, Zoey Redbird is marked as a vampire fledgling, and her life seems to have been ruined. She went to a good school, had a best friend, and a great boyfriend. All vampire fledglings have to stay at the House of Night until they are fully changed vampires, so Zoey has to leave everything and everyone behind. The House of Night turns out to be a great place and she makes lots of new friends. All she wants is to fit in, but that is very hard when you have been blessed with powers that no vampire has had before. These are great books!”
I have another young teenaged customer who chose a couple of interesting titles the other day, that on first glance might not seem to be for the age. But on second glance… My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult’s page turner about a child born to a family for the purpose of being a bone marrow donor for her sister. The ethical conflicts loom large, and the emotional hits never stop. There would be lots to talk about, if you happen to have the type of young teen in the house that likes talking!
The same lovely young woman chose Holy Cow, a memoir by Sarah MacDonald. I would gravitate toward this book just looking at the cover, for sure. Eleven years after a backpacking adventure to India in her twenties, MacDonald finds herself moving to New Delhi to be with the love of her life. She chronicles the chaos and contradictions of India – from war zones to spiritual retreats to Bollywood culture. Again, I may not have thought of it for teens, but why not?
I don’t know any girls that read Tony Horwitz’s Alex Rider series. A challenge to you girls out there, maybe… Then again, being a girl myself, I wouldn’t be reading them except that I am reading them with my son, who adores them. And what boy would not adore a teenaged James Bond-type guy working for MI6 and getting into scrape after deadly scrape with evil doers trying to blow up the world, clone themselves a thousand times over and take over the world, control the world through computer viruses, and on, and on, and on. Truly the excitement never stops – I only require of Tim that after every couple of Alex Riders, it’s my pick for one. Happily, the publishers are slowly putting the collection out in graphic novel form, for the reluctantly reading ‘tween boy in your life.
If your ‘tween is not an Astoria Middle School student, they won’t be at AMS for the “Everyone Reads” program there that started with James Howe’s absolutely wonderful The Misfits last year. However, they can certainly read the books! Next year the program will include a book for each grade, adding My Mother the Cheerleader, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The thread that connects these novels is the different ways people are bullied or oppressed and the gamut of worlds both large and small affected by it – from a middle school to the south of Ruby Bridges to the Holocaust. Kudos to AMS for tackling these subjects.