SUDDEN FICTION: A BOOK REVIEW

March 10, 2015 in Book Reviews

How long does a story have to be to sink into your soul? To have characters that you love or hate or root for or hope they get what they deserve? To have a plot that compels you to keep reading because you have to know what happens? Traditionally, it’s the novel that accomplishes all these things, but short stories, with their narrowed perspective to a single event or character, can be just as powerful.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one of the most stunning short stories I’ve ever read. (Scroll past the acknowledgements to get to the story.) An entire war, an entire lifetime of a soldier’s hopes and dreams and desires and fears is distilled into a series of lists of the things each soldier carries in his backpack and pockets.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Long Walk by Stephen King are both Hunger Games-esque tales of the horrific “games” societies inflict on themselves in the name of superstition or control.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a haunting portrait of a woman’s descent into madness, The Color Master by Aimee Bender is filled with beautiful and sensual descriptions of color and fabric, and Karen Russell drops you into another world in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, an amazing achievement in creativity and imagination.

What do all of these short stories have in common? They won’t let me go. I read and re-read them just as I do my favorite novels. Despite the fact that they are short stories, the emotional depth of the characters and the plot are arguably as rich as those in a novel. They’re smaller, yes, but no less powerful.

The question is, how short can a story go without losing the power to move us?

The shortest short story, possibly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is this:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Six words, but it’s impossible not to feel the heartache that this simple ad must have caused someone.

How about Joyce Carol Oates’ Lethal? (Warning: Adult Content!) It’s only a paragraph long, but I defy you to read it and not come away without feeling like you’ve just been punched in the gut. Or Currents by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil, which is not much longer, told in reverse chronological order, and blows you away with the last line.

This is where Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, comes in. Short-short stories, also known as sudden fiction, are stories that are limited in their number of words, but still must adhere to all the qualities that make a short story or a novel good.

This collection of short-short stories consists of stories no more than five pages long and they vary widely in subject and form. My favorite in the collection, Sunday in the Park by Bel Kaufman, is straightforward in form, but it delves into the dynamics between a husband and a wife so completely that when the wife has her final say on the situation, I actually said, out loud, “Oooo, that’s good.” All this in three-and-a-half pages!

A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon by Jack Matthews is told entirely in the answers of a questionnaire, but we never see what the questions are. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Hit Man is formatted like a biography, with headers like Early Years, First Date, and Peas: “The Hit Man does not like peas. They are too difficult to balance on the fork.”

The stories in this collection range from serious to funny, from traditional to experimental, and from heartbreaking to “What the heck did I just read?” The greats are well represented: there are stories here written by John Updike, Langston Hughes, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Ray Bradbury. The Afterword has an interesting selection of arguments among writers as to what defines sudden fiction and what it should ultimately be called (sudden fiction? short-shorts? blasters?).

The best part is that these stories are short: even on your busiest day, you can squeeze in reading an entire story filled with plot and characterization that will either pull on your heartstrings or make you laugh out loud in the span of about five minutes. And if you find that you don’t like a short-short, then you’ve only wasted five minutes of your time on it.

Let me know what you think of the short-short genre!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER: A BOOK REVIEW

December 5, 2014 in Book Reviews

If you’re looking for something different, Junot Diaz’s short story collection This Is How You Lose Her is it. Prepare to entire a different culture through the eyes of Yunior from the Dominican Republic. Poverty, violence, terrible treatment of women, sex, and racism in terms of the myriad of different skin colors and nationalities and their statuses are all exposed against the backdrop of an unrelenting search for love.

I’m warning you now: there are a lot of naughty words and thoughts in this book, and in the beginning, Yunior is not exactly likeable. In the first story The Sun, The Moon, The Stars, Yunior tells us straight up:

I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.”

By the end of the story, after hearing about how Yunior cheated on her and the disrespect with which he spoke about her, I tended to agree with Magdalena. But keep reading, because in the next story Nilda we see a bit of Yunior’s childhood, which sets the scene for his big brother Rafa’s fate played out in The Pura Principle. Considering the unlikability of Rafa, it is surprisingly poignant, especially in terms of how these events shaped the Yunior we first met. The next story, Invierno is a heartbreaking account of the tyranny Yunior’s father held over both his sons and his wife, preventing them from leaving their apartment for “no reason other than that’s what he wanted.” Yunior, the asshole we first met, is becomes multilayered as we learn more about him until the final story, and the best in my opinion, The Cheater’s Guide To Love, which just about breaks your heart.

The stories are not in chronological order, and one story, Otravida, Otravez does not feature Yunior. Yet they all share the vivid, unapologetic, wonderful voice of Diaz who draws us into the Dominican culture and doesn’t let go. Come dip your feet into Yunior’s world, where it is sometimes harsh, sometimes disturbing, sometimes heartbreaking, and always compelling.

(The only thing missing from this book is a glossary. I would have loved to know what some of the slang terms he used meant, particularly when it came to classifying women according to their nationality.)

 

 

OLIVE KITTERIDGE: A BOOK REVIEW

December 1, 2014 in Book Reviews

The Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a collection of 13 short stories about Olive Kitteridge, either directly or indirectly. Olive is a rich, prickly character. A retired schoolteacher with a husband and a son, she is tough, controlling, critical, and proud, but she is also loyal, kind, and capable of being hurt. We first learn about her through the eyes of her husband Henry in Pharmacy, where we see her rigidity and coldness, but that view of Olive is immediately offset by the following story Incoming Tide, where Olive’s kindness is absorbed by her former student, returning to his hometown to kill himself.

So the novel continues, exploring the happenings in the small town of Crosby, Maine where tragedies and hurts of all shapes and sizes afflict its inhabitants. Each time the prism is turned to a new set of characters, we see a new perspective of Olive, until by the end, whether you like Olive or not, it is impossible not to feel for her, particularly in the heart-wrenching Security, where all her faults in raising her son come back to haunt her during a visit with him and his new family.

I loved Olive Kitteridge. Every story is full of complex characters involved in challenging situations, both big and small. Starving finds Harmon and Daisy, a couple having an affair, embroiled in trying to rescue an anorexic girl. A Different Road follows Olive and Henry through a horrible event in a hospital restroom, and Tulips has Olive visiting the mother of a killer in order to fill the loneliness of her days. Strout’s writing is mesmerizing. She knows exactly how much to reveal and when to reveal it, so that each story is rich with both what is said and what is left up to the reader to discern. It is a slow pageturner, in that I wanted to rush ahead to see what happened, but I also wanted to slow down and savor the quality of Strout’s writing. This is one of those novels that I was sorry to see come to an end.

Luckily for me, it doesn’t have to because Olive Kitteridge is now a miniseries on HBO starring the incomparable Frances McDormand from Fargo. I am looking forward to spending more time with these unforgettable characters, especially Olive herself, who I have grown to love.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN BY VIRGINIA WOOLF

October 14, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself, Book Reviews, On Writing

If you are a woman and a writer and you haven’t yet read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, then you should. It is based on two papers Woolf read to the Arts Society at Newnham and Odtaa at Girton in 1928 discussing the topic of Women and Fiction. It is a large topic, and Woolf endearingly meanders around it and in it and through it until she proves her initial opinion: “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…”

In Woolf’s time, circumstances for women had evolved. They had the right to vote, a married woman was allowed to own her own property, and there were at least two colleges for women in England. Women were beginning to enjoy a bit of freedom. But it wasn’t always that way. Woolf takes us on a journey of the history of women by pulling various books off of her shelves and studying them. For example, Professor Trevelyan’s History of England said this:

Wife-beating was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low…Similarly, the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion.

John Langdon Davies wrote this in his A Short History of Women:

when children cease to be altogether desirable, women cease to be altogether necessary.

It is interesting to note Woolf’s take on these comments. Why are men writing about women? Why aren’t women writing about women, or women writing about men? She traces the political and social history of women to answer these questions, and finds that despite the limitations placed on women, they still found a way to write. George Eliot and George Sand, both women, adopted male pen names. Jane Austen had no room of her own, so she had to write furtively in the common sitting room, hiding her manuscript under a piece of blotting-paper whenever visitors or servants came in.

Woolf also delves into the quality of women’s writing as compared to men. Women were limited in their scope. They didn’t travel or participate in wars or hold down jobs. What they knew was comprised primarily of interpersonal relationships as observed in their sitting rooms, which Jane Austen wrote about adeptly. But how can you compare Pride and Prejudice to Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace?

Women and women writers have come a long way since then. I am lucky to be living in a time where women are allowed to write out in the open without limitations, and yet, I still struggle. Although I have money and a room of my own in which to write, my problem is that I am never in that room.

I write at the kitchen table where I can be accessible to my kids during homework time. I write a sentence of my own, then answer a question of theirs. I write another sentence, and then correct a math sheet. I write another sentence, and then I break up an argument over something that isn’t even worth arguing about.

I write at the skate park. My kids scooter up and down ramps and bowls while I write a sentence in my notebook and then jump when I hear a sudden screech of metal slamming into concrete. I write a sentence and then cringe when I hear some of the language the older kids are using. I write a sentence and then run to the car to grab some bandages and a tube of Neosporin to fix up a skinned knee.

I’ve written in the car waiting for someone to be done with their soccer/football/lacrosse practice, on the couch during a Seahawks game, and outside on the patio because someone felt “lonely” and wanted me to watch them do tricks on the trampoline.

I am not complaining. As Virginia Woolf says:

When you reflect upon these immense privileges and length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

Perhaps in this day and age, a room of one’s own can be wherever it needs to be to get the writing done.

 

 

THE TOP 10 BOOKS THAT MADE ME A READER

October 8, 2014 in Book Reviews

A “Name Your Top 10 Favorite Books” Challenge has been making the rounds on Facebook, so when my friend Lisa challenged me, I was excited to do it. But then came the hard reality of deciding which books would make the Top 10. Should it be comprised of books I’ve loved for years and thus have stood the test of time, or should it be newly found novels that have wormed their way into my heart? Should it contain my beloved books regardless of their critical acclaim or should it the best literary books I’ve read? Top 10 Beach Reads vs Top 10 Non-Fiction? Top 10 Children’s or YA books? And where do short story collections and mysteries and thrillers fit into the mix?

1)    The truth is I can never make this list. I have too many favorites because I have been an avid reader for years, ever since that intrepid detective with the titan-colored hair fell into my lap in The Secret of the Old Clock. Nancy Drew was my hero for many reasons. She was smart, pretty, and independent. She had great friends, Bess and George, and a hunky boyfriend named Ned, and she solved mysteries that involved cunning, danger, and travel to exotic locales. I wanted to be Nancy Drew, but in the end she gave me a greater gift than her identity: she taught me to love reading. Nancy Drew paved the way for my love of mysteries, such as anything by Agatha Christie, the A is for Alibi series by Sue Grafton, The Da Vinci Code, Gone Girl, and Case Histories.

2)    So I decided to make a list of the Top 10 Books That Made Me a Reader. When I think back, no book made a bigger impression on my young mind than Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

This book was about as far away from me as you could get. It was about a young boy in the Ozarks who spent his nights raccoon hunting with his two dogs. I was a young girl in the suburbs who spent my nights safely tucked in my bed. Ultimately, this novel about love and adventure transcends gender, locale, and life experience. This novel taught me I could be carried away to worlds that I knew nothing about and then spit me out in a puddle of my own tears: books could move you. This paved the way for novels like Unbroken, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (World War II) and anything by Pat Conroy (the South), Maeve Binchy (Ireland), and of course, sad stories involving animals, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

3)   D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire was my first non-fiction love. I read it about a thousand times, and then I read it aloud to my fellow second graders during class (I’m not entirely sure how that came about). Greek mythology was like nothing else I had ever encountered. Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and whisked away to the underworld. Athena turned Arachne into a spider and Hera’s servant was covered with one hundred eyes. Cronus ate his own children so they wouldn’t overthrow him. Wild, fantastical, and true! (As much as myths can be true.) This led me to Richard Feynman, Oliver Sachs, Malcolm Gladwell, Ann Rule and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.


4)    A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a revelation to me. How could something so magical and fantastical be rooted in concepts that were scientific? This novel opened my eyes to possibilities I hadn’t considered before, which is why I now enjoy the magical realism in novels by Alice Hoffman and Aimee Bender as well as straight science fiction with a human twist, such as anything by the magnificent Isaac Asimov.

5)    Visions of Terror by William Katz. There is no explaining this novel except to say that it was my first horror/thriller novel and I loved it.  I couldn’t put it down, despite the fact that I had read it multiple times. It introduced me to what a suspense novel should be and led me directly to Stephen King, Harlan Coben, David Baldacci, Robert Ludlum, and any other suspenseful thriller you can find at airport bookstores.

6)    Seven Days To A Brand New Me (or any of her other books) by Ellen Conford. Conford wrote what I’d now call YA chick lit. Likable, funny high school protagonists wind up in embarrassing/humiliating situations trying to get a boy to like them, and yes, they walk off with the boy in the end! I ate these books up. What girl doesn’t struggle with the age-old question of should I tell the boy I like him or lust in secret from afar? Conford planted me on the road to my most beloved chick lit novels of all time by Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, and the fabulous Jane Austen.

7)    Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Oh, Anne Shirley! I wanted to be her too. She was adventurous and wholesome, funny and loyal, and when she finally realized she loved the dreamy Gilbert Blythe when he was at death’s door with thyphoid fever the agony of that long night nearly tore me apart. Every one of the novels in this series is lovely, and they led me directly to:

8)    Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The unrequited love between Laurie (a boy), Jo (a girl) was filled with heartache and disappointment was nothing compared to Beth’s fragility and ultimate demise. (What? She died? That’s not allowed!) This may have been the first novel I read where a character who wasn’t an animal died, and it was traumatic, but it was something else too: a great story. This led me to other more sophisticated stories combining reality and tragedy like Sophie’s Choice and Of Mice and Men.

9)    The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois. It’s hard to explain this Newberry award-winning novel, but it is a magical hot air balloon ride. Imagine landing on an exotic island named Krakatoa and finding 20 families, each named after a letter of the alphabet, like Mr. A, Mr. B, etc. They rotate making dinners for everyone on the island, so that the M family might make a Moroccan meal, and Mr. F would host a French night. The island is home to both a volcano and one of the biggest diamond mines in the world. The novel is rich in fantasy, so rich I might have referred to it as “out there.” Yet I read it many times, unable to stay away from this completely unbelievable world that I absolutely believed in.

10) The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This is the classic battle of good vs. evil with fauns, Turkish delights, betrayal, mythology, religion, and magic added in. This one paved the way for all the great books in this genre to come, namely the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, 100 Cupboards, The Passage and The Stand. 

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED: A BOOK REVIEW

September 30, 2014 in Book Reviews

A friend of mine recently asked me if I had any recommendations for a light, fun read. As it happens, the books I have been reading lately have been dark and it doesn’t get any darker than Vietnam.

I am not a war story gal. The only reason I sought out The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories by Tim O’Brien, is because two different sources hailed its short story of the same name as an example of exquisite short story crafting: he tells an entire story through a list of what the soldiers in Vietnam carried.

Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.

Not only does he matter-of-factly relate the practicalities of the war in what they had to carry on their backs as they “humped” through the hostile terrain, he depicts the deaths of his fellow soldiers in the same way. In practical terms, Ted Lavender’s death meant rearranging their own packs to absorb his load before requesting a dust-off to retrieve his body.

But of course there is more to it than that: the tension, the fear, the dark humor to keep fear at bay, the guilt, the blame, the claustrophobia of investigating the tunnels, the loved ones back home, and the personalities of these soldiers in a war they were drafted to participate in come rolling in through the fog and the rain and the shadows of the jungles they trek through until the entire breadth of the Vietnam War is captured in a single short story.

I only intended to read the Things They Carried, but I ended up reading the entire collection of short stories and I am glad I did. It is a heartbreaking, powerful collection of fiction based on the author’s own non-fictional experiences in the Vietnam War. For me, several of these stories are standouts, and by “standouts,” I mean that they will haunt me.

The Man I Killed is a stunning portrayal of what a soldier feels when he kills the enemy, who turns out to be little more than a young man with the promise of the rest of his life ripped away like the star-shaped hole where one eye used to be. O’Brien’s meticulous and controlled use of repetition evokes a powerful picture of the immobility of shock.

Speaking of Courage and the following Notes speaks to how the moments in Vietnam cross the ocean with Norman Bowkar and won’t let him go. Just as he loops around the lake in his truck, so his life loops around his memories of the war and one incident in particular.

In the Field is about as real as it gets in terms of the relentless rain, the mud and muck of a river that has overflowed its banks, and the search for one of their own in the muddy, shitty river in the dark of the night where the enemy is never far away.

Don’t let the grittiness of the subject matter dissuade you from picking up this book of phenomenally written short stories. Try reading just one, perhaps The Things They Carried, and see what you think. I don’t think you will be sorry.

 

 

 

 

LOVE IS A MIX TAPE: A BOOK REVIEW

July 28, 2014 in Book Reviews

I know I’m not the only one with memories of lurking around the AM/FM radio console/cassette player waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio. Every time a song neared its end, I would kneel before the cassette player, place my finger on the Record button, and wait, hoping that finally my song would be played next so I could record it.

I spent many hours making mix tapes of “the best songs ever!” for my friends and they did the same for me. I even made a “Labor Tape”, a tape filled with songs that relaxed and inspired me through the births of all three of my children. My oldest was born to Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion (no joke). My middle son came out in a Counting Crows Rain King/10,000 Maniacs Trouble Me combo (which is actually quite fitting for him), while my youngest was born to another 10,000 Maniacs song Like the Weather, from which you may conclude that either a) I am a huge 10,000 Maniacs fan, or b) my youngest’s mood can change on a dime.

The days of mix tapes are over, but you can re-live them again in Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, so he is no music slouch. It is a trip down memory lane to be reminded of songs from quintessential music groups like The Cars, Supertramp, ELO, and Stray Cats. But Sheffield does one better: he uses his mix tapes to tell a story. Musical era by musical era, he chronicles several key moments from his own life, but the majority of his memoir covers his seven years with Renée, the woman he fell in love with, married, and lost much too early to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.

I was in high school and college during the 80s and 90s, the decades Sheffield covers in his memoir, so these are my songs. They have woven their way into my DNA. Whenever I hear so much as a refrain or a signature chord, I am  transported back to a moment. Cruel Summer by Bananarama drops me into the landlocked traffic in Newport Beach, my portable cassette player beside me in the passenger seat cranked to high, the windows rolled down, the sun shimmering off the cars and asphalt, as I try to worm my way into a parking lot near the beach without running over a lackadaisical barefoot surfer crossing the road where no crosswalk exists.

They are Sheffield’s and Renée’s songs too, and Sheffield has no shortage of songs linked to the memories of his life. It is a delight to be reminded of these old songs and of the highlights of the era (they loved the The Cutting Edge too!). It is also a delight getting to know Sheffield and Renée. When she died, instantly, with no warning, she left Sheffield anchorless, swimming in grief and unable to turn to music for solace because every song reminded him of Renée, and they were simply too painful to listen to anymore. (I have a few of those too. Don’t we all?)

Sheffield’s writing is engaging. He lures you in with music, holds you close with anecdotes from his relationship with Renée, and then slams you with loss and grief (I confess I shed a few tears). But music continues to evolve, and eventually Sheffield found his way to new music, a new place to live, and with time, a new love.

We carry our memories forward, and the key to accessing them is through a song. Or in Sheffield’s case, a mix tape.

 

FAIRY TALES!

July 21, 2014 in Book Reviews

I love fairy tales! I always have. I am enchanted by unknown princes (the Beast, the frog) and princesses (Cinderella, the Little Mermaid) finding their true loves, the ones who can look deep into their soul through the covering of fur, frogskin, raggedy clothes, or silence and know who they really are. I love the initial stirrings of romance, the obstacles along the way, and the “happily ever after” endings. But if you look at the dawn of fairy tales in the form of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they are nothing like the Disneyfied fairy tales I grew up with. No, these fairy tales are creepy and disturbing, to the point where they are divided into two sections: one for children, and one for adults only. These ones should not be read aloud to children under any circumstances.

One such tale is The Juniper Tree. The evil stepmother (of course) does not like her stepson, so she kills him, feeds him to his own father, and buries the bones beneath the juniper tree. Hmm. Since when do fairy tales feature murder and cannibalism? Since the beginning, it seems.

These original fairy tales have been told and retold over time and across countries, and that is what makes reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: 40 New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, so much fun. In this collection, 40 different authors tackle their favorite fairy tales by adding their own twists. Some  authors are well known, like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and my new favorite author Aimee Bender. Some fairy tales originate from other countries, like Russia, Ireland, and Denmark. But they are all modern takes on age-old fairy tales.

Just as with the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, some of these short stories were disturbing. Kelly Link’s Catskin, based on the English fairy tale of the same name, described horrifying images of people dressing up in catskins. I Am Anjuhimeko by Hiromi Ito is based on a Japanese tale of a brother and sister separated and sold into slavery. This story focuses on the journey of the sister. Her father buries her in the sand at the age of three so he can get rid of her. She escapes, is brutalized and raped, and then falls in with a yamanba mountain witch who has intercourse with a stone pillar. She immediately births a leech-child, whom she gives to Anjuhimeko. Creepy? Absolutely. Odd? Yes. But can I say it’s any more disturbing than The Juniper Tree? (Maybe. I’m not sure about that yamanba.)

Then again, some of the stories were just as enchanting as any fairy tale I’ve ever read. I am now a huge fan of the Russian Baba Iaga, a witch/fairy godmother type who lives in a hut that rests on chicken legs. Should a visitor appear that she does not wish to see, the hut will turn around and around so the visitor can never find the door: magical! Joy Williams Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child is one of my favorites from this collection.

Halfway People by Karen Joy Fowler is a heartbreaking, beautifully written tale based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans, and Aimee Bender’s The Color Master is a stand out as well. Based on the French Donkeyskin, it is the story of a dying color master teaching her young apprentice how to take her place. The descriptions of colors and how they are mixed to meet the needs of the royalty are stunning, such as when the Duke’s son needs a pair of shoes the gray color of rock so when he walks, no one would see his feet (he doesn’t like to see his feet). Orange by Neil Gaiman is told entirely in the format of a questionnaire, where all you see are the answers:

“7. Several times a day.

8. No.

9. Through the Internet. Probably on eBay.

10. She’s been buying colors and dyes from all over the world…”

If you are a fan of fairy tales, or short stories, or the power of the imagination, this is a fun book to pick up, especially over the summer. Pull up a towel and an ice-cold glass of lemonade, select a story that looks interesting (the first line of every story is given in the Table of Contents), and while away some time in far away lands of magic and mystery.

 

 

 

 

TWO OUTSTANDING CHILDREN’S BOOKS

July 13, 2014 in Book Reviews

I am fortunate that 2 of my 3 kids still let me read aloud to them at night. It’s a fantastic bedtime ritual. After a busy day, this is our chance to slow down, snuggle, and escape to other places and times via the portal that good stories and illustrations provide. Every once in awhile, we come across a treasure: a children’s book so outstanding that borrowing it from the library is not enough. It has to live with us. Last week, we came across two such books.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair by Kate Bernheimer

Illustrations by Jake Parker

“There once was a girl who wouldn’t brush her hair.” So begins the fairy tale of the little girl with the magnificent head of brown, wavy hair that she refuses to tame with a brush because, as she says, “It’s just my way.” But of course there are consequences. One day she finds a mouse has taken up residence in her hair.

“Now, we all know that in books, people scream when they see a mouse, and jump on a chair. But the girl was in bed; there was no chair nearby. And besides, she’d read enough fairy tales to remember that mice always turned out to be your helpers. So she simply said, “Hello up there, mouse!” and decided to let it be.”

Of course, with such a large, comfortable tangle of hair, there was plenty of room for more than one mouse, and so more mice came. The illustrations are pure magic. There are mice playing cards, playing volleyball, and sword fighting in the girl’s hairdo. Sometimes they all gather together to eat popcorn and watch a movie projected onto her hair. She carts all her mouse friends with her to school, where her fellow classmates share a cookie or two with the mice. Before long, she has 100 mice living in her hair and they are beginning to cause a ruckus.

The illustrations are gorgeous, the story is fresh, and the lovely refrain of “It’s just my way,” pops up in exactly the right places. This is a beautiful fairy tale to add to your collection.

 

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and Other Poems by Jack Prelutsky

Illustrations by Carin Berger

Sometimes I come across books I wish I had written. This is one of those books. Prelutsky has taken ordinary household objects and creatures from the animal kingdom and mashed them together to form wildly creative, poetic odes demonstrating the power of his imagination. For example, behold the Bizarre Alarmadillos, a magical mix of armadillos and alarm clocks: “…And besides, they’re thickly armored/Yet they’re always in alarm.” The illustrations of the alarmadillos are just as spectacular. Created entirely out of neatly collaged papers, all of the creatures are whimsical and animated. I particularly love the charming skinny legs and tiny shoes on the alarmadillos and some of the other animals, such as the Hatchickens.

Hatchickens are odd,

            And the reason is that

            Instead of a head,

            They have only a hat.”

I cannot live without these delightful Hatchickens, or the Panthermometer, or the poor Zipperpotamuses who keep coming unzipped, or especially the Spatuloon, who

Calls longingly as it glides by—

            “Syrup” is its plaintive cry.

            The fowl, both curious and rare,

            Now flips a pancake in the air.”

How clever is that? I am in awe of you, Jack Prelutsky. And you too, Carin Berger: your collages are works of art.

 

FUNNY IN FARSI: A BOOK REVIEW

July 7, 2014 in Book Reviews

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas is an absolute delight from beginning to end. When Firoozeh was seven years old, her family moved from Iran to Southern California. While her father spoke English, having already been to America as a Fulbright scholar, neither Firoozeh nor her mother spoke the language, making Firoozeh’s first foray into elementary school a difficult one. Add to that the culture clash (Halloween, Christmas, the trip to the hardware store in search of “elbow grease”), and you can start to appreciate the challenges Firoozeh faced in trying to find a place for herself in her new country. The fact that she did so with both grace and humor makes Funny in Farsi the best of both worlds: a laugh-out-loud, poignant journey to becoming an Iranian-American.

Firoozeh has a large and colorful family, but her father Kazem steals the show. The stories of him trying to teach Firoozeh how to swim, his “free sample” lunches at Price Club, and his fascination with Las Vegas make for hilarious reading while painting the picture of a smart, proud, and courageous man with a unique outlook on life: “I’m a rich man in America, too. I just don’t have a lot of money.”

Funny in Farsi tackles difficult subjects as well, such as the hatred Iranians faced during the Iranian Hostage crisis. As Firoozeh says, “Nobody asked our opinion of whether the hostages should be taken, yet every single Iranian in America was paying the price. One kid throws a spitball and the whole class gets detention.” Except their detention was in the form of bumper stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Wanted: Iranians for Target Practice,” and the inability for Kazem to find a job because no one in America would hire an Iranian.

I learned a lot about the Iranian culture in Dumas’ memoir, but the one aspect that will stick with me most is their sense of family. The closeness of the extended family and their generosity with their homes, their cooking, and their time is beautiful to witness. It says a lot that the Iranian language has more words to describe individual relatives than English does. For example, we have cousins, but in Persian, there are eight different words dedicated to the description of exactly how each cousin is related to you. Family is important, and that comes across in every story that Dumas tells.

I loved every moment of Funny in Farsi. I didn’t want it to end and luckily it doesn’t: Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen is her follow-up and the next book on my list!