My Name is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
First sentence: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. ”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s long and often philosophical. It’s in the adult fiction section, but I think high schoolers who are interested in art should read this.

I’ve briefly talked about this book (in 2004 and in 2007), but I’ve not written a proper review. I probably haven’t picked up the story of Asher Lev in about 10 years, and doing the #ICTReads challenge gave me a chance to revisit this world of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews and the struggle between religion and art.

The basic story — if you haven’t heard — is that of  prodigy artist and orthodox Jew Asher Lev’s childhood and teenage years. His father was an ambassador for their sect leader, the Rebbe, and his mother ended up going to school to learn Russian to help with the work as well. They were both fully committed to their religion, to helping build up yeshivas (schools) around the world, and to helping Jews escape communist countries in the years after World War II. Asher’s passion, on the other hand, was to draw. He had a drive to do it, sometimes not even realizing that he was drawing. That’s not to say he wasn’t religious — he was. He went to school and to synagogue, he studied the Torah, he kept kosher. But, he wanted to create art. Which meant that his parents just didn’t understand him or his desires to do something so frivilous.

And it all comes to a head in his 20s, after he goes to Florence and Paris and has been abroad for many years. He comes back with paintings that use the form of the crucifixion —  he says in the book something along the lines of “what better way to depict anguish?” — and his parents, for whom Jesus is the symbol of suffering and hate, just cannot accept that.

It’s a very introspective book, musing about the meaning of art and the purpose of religion and whether there’s a place in religion for art that doesn’t conform to the rules of religion.  And while it’s often philosophical and sometimes has a tendency to be sluggish, I do think Potok does an excellent job walking the line between religion and art, and showing not only the conflict within Asher, but also between him and his parents (especially his father) and between his parents. And while I wish, now, that there were more female characters (there’s his mother, their housekeeper, and the art gallery director), it’s still an excellent book.

 

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Module 9: Capture the Flag

Messner, K. (2012). Capture the Flag. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Genre: Middle grade private eye-style mystery.

Book Summary:  Anna is the daughter of a Vermont senator, José the son of an art historian, and Henry the nephew of a huge art collector. What brought them all together was a gala for the restoration of the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner (I’ve seen it at the National Museum of American History… it’s… an old flag). A flag which was stolen. And since the three plucky kids are holed up in a DC airport (National? Dulles?) snowed in (I suppose that’s plausible for DC, but improbably) and stuck there, they take it upon themselves to find the missing flag.

Impressions: This one, for me, suffered from too many coincidences. BOTH the people running for president were from Vermont? All the kids were headed back to Vermont? (WHY Vermont?!) And their moms/aunts were all part of this secret art protection society (which I could never figure out what that had to do with the plot). There was a “bad” guy that turned out to be a maguffin, but I called the real culprit fairly early on, so there wasn’t any real mystery to this mystery. I’m guessing kids would like it (who doesn’t like kids outsmarting adults?) and I did like that Anna was the character that pushed the plot forward, but overall,  it just fell flat for me. There are much better art mysteries, or middle grade mysteries, out there.

Review: The Kirkus staff really liked the book, calling it “gripping” and “a sparkling start for a promising new series”. They did admit that the ways in which the kids accessed the inner workings of an airport was “improbable” but noted that this probably wouldn’t bother the target audience.

Staff. (2012). Capture the flag. Kirkus Reviews. 80 (11). Retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kate-messner/capture-flag/.

Library Uses: This one would be good on a library display of mystery books or books about U. S. artifacts or art.

Readalikes:

  • Framed by James Ponti – This is the most similar: set in Washinton, D.C. and involving an art theft. Except this one was a lot less predictable — even though there were clues throughout — and a lot more enjoyable — it was definitely action-packed! — to read.
  • The Greenglass House by Kate Milford — This one has a slight paranormal element, but mostly it’s just a mystery of figuring out who the different travelers are, and their connection to the Greenglass House and why each traveler suddenly appeared at the house on Christmas Eve.
  • Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage —  A delightful, quirky Southern mystery as Mo, the main character, tries to clear her best friend’s name when he discovers a dead body. It’s got fantastic characters, a lot of charm and drama, and a great mystery to solve (and the kids do solve it!) in addition.

Jane, Unlimited

by Kristin Cashore
First sentence: “The house on the cliff looks like a ship disappearing into fog.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 19, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are six (or so) f-bombs, some mention of sex (none actual). It will be in the Teen Section (grades 9+).

Jane’s guardian, her Aunt Magnolia, made her promise one thing before Magnolia left for Antarctica (and then subsequently died): don’t turn down an invitation to Tu Reviens, the home of the eccentric millionaire Octavian Thrash. Jane promises, and so when her former tutor, and Thrash child, Kiran invites Jane to a gala the mansion, Jane agrees to go, unsure of what she’ll find.

At this point, the book reads like your typical YA novel: a girl who’s trying to find herself, a dead “mom”, a mansion with secrets. But, at one point, Jane is asked to make a decision of which person to find and talk to: Mrs. Vanders (the housekeeper), the little girl (whom Jane has seen around the mansion), Kiran, Ravi (Kiran’s twin), or Jasper (the basset hound). And from there the novel diverges into incredibly unique territory. Jane is allowed, throughout the course of the novel, to make each of those decisions, and in doing so, lives five different versions of the day.

I’ll be frank: it took a bit to settle into this. But, as the different versions went on, I caught on to what (I think) Cashore was exploring. One version of “reality” bled into the next, and it got more and more fascinating as it went on. I liked the exploration of the idea of multiverses, I liked seeing how Jane reacted to each of the situations she found herself in. And I found myself getting caught up in each version. Of course, Cashore’s writing is impeccable, and while I caught the Jane Eyre and Winnie the Pooh references, I missed the biggest homage: to Rebecca. (Which means, I should reread this one!)

It really was a delight to read.

Brave

by Svetlana Chmakova
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some bullying, but it’s really appropriate for 4th-6th graders. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section.

I really don’t know what inspired me to pick this up; perhaps it was lack of time, and a graphic novel is easy to get through… I’ve not read Awkward, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this one.

Jason is a 6th grader, and in his dreams he’s got big plans to be an astronaut at NASA and help figure out sunspots. In real life, however, he’s not so great. He’s bad at math, his friends (such as they are) are constantly poking fun at him, he’s often left out of groups, and he’s got two bullies on his tail. But, as the story progresses, things start to look up for Jason. Because he’s left out of the art club planning, he gets to help out at the newspaper. He makes a friend in Jorge, with whom he has nothing in common, but who is kind and interested in what Jason has to say. And, perhaps most importantly, he realizes he’s being bullied (not just by the kids on his tail, but also by his “friends”), and stands up for himself.

It’s that last thing that made this book so good for me. It’s easy for adults to say “stand up to bullies”, but honestly, not many kids realize they’re being bullied. (I sure didn’t, when I was in middle and high school. Neither did C when she was bullied in middle school) A lot of people brush it off as “jokes” or “criticism” but, honestly, it’s just plain bullying. I loved that Chmakova addressed that, that Jason had to REALIZE he was being bullied in order for him to take ownership of his own world. It makes me want to give it to all kids — because maybe those who are doing the bullying don’t realize they are hurting other people — just to get a conversation going.

I really enjoyed this one.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

by Maurene Goo
First sentence: “When I was seven, I thought I moved a pencil with my mind.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s a propensity to use the s-word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8; I debated, but decided that it ultimately wen there) of the bookstore.

Desi does it all: she’s student body president, involved in practically every club, soccer star, valedictorian, and a model daughter for her dad (especially since her mom’s sudden death seven years before). The only thing she doesn’t have (and hasn’t ever had): a boyfriend.  And then Luca shows up at her school: reserved, artistic, with a shady past, and that… something… that makes him completley desirable to Desi. The problem? Desi is absolutely lousy at flirting. (Or as her two best friends, Fiona and Wes, call what she does: flailure.) So, Desi turns to one of her father’s passions to get help, and starts binge-watching K-Dramas. She comes up with a list of 28 tried-and-true (and also a bit cliche) steps to Get the Guy and starts her project.

The best part of this incredibly sweet book is that you don’t have to know K-Dramas (though I suppose it helps) in order to enjoy that this is parodying K-Dramas while also following the formula. (It’s  Jane the Virgin in book form!) Yes, there’s a definite arc to the book, but it feels, well a bit wink-wink-nudge-nudge about it all. It’s very self-aware, and that was something I really enjoyed about it. That, and the father-daughter relationship. Sure, there’s a dead mom, but Desi’s dad is the most well-adjusted adult in a YA novel I’ve read in a while. I liked that he was a mechanic with a passion for funny shows (Desi was named after Desi Arnez) and K-Dramas. I liked his relationship with Desi, and the love that I could sense between the two.

It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s a little silly, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Framed: A TOAST Mystery

framedby James Ponti
First sentence: “My name’s Florian Bates.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: The names might be tough for younger/not as strong readers to manage, but other than that, it’s great for the 3rd to 5th/6th grade range. It’s in the Middle Grade section of the bookstore.

Florian has this theory he calls T.O.A.S.T, which stands for Theory of All Small Things. The idea is this: if you observe the little things, it adds up to the bigger things, which helps you make deductions of situations. So, yeah, Florian is pretty much Sherlock Holmes. Which comes in handy when he and his parents move to Washington, DC, and get involved — with Florian’s new friend, Margaret — in helping the FBI solve an art heist at the National Gallery of Art.

Oh, this was so much fun! Seriously. No sick or dead parents (though Margaret is adopted). A pretty straight-forward mystery to solve, with clues along the way. A bit of action — Florian does get kidnapped at one point — and some intense moments, but it was never really dark. And I loved the friendship between Florian and Margaret. They make an excellent team. I’m sure I’m not the first one to come up with the Sherlock Holmes comparison, but that’s really what it reminded me of. There’s not a lot of really good middle grade mysteries, and so this one definitely fills a hole.

And it’s a lot of fun.

Two DNFs

I suppose each  of these could have gotten their own post, but I didn’t want to work that hard.

hatersThe Haters
by Jesse Andrews
First sentence: “Jazz camp was mostly dudes.”
Review copy provided by publisher
Content: So many swear words, including a bucketful of f-bombs. Realistic, sure, but it lands it squarely in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Wes and Corey are at jazz camp. They’re not the world’s best musicians; mostly what they do is mess around on the bass and drums, respectively, and be super snobbish about the music they listen to. They figure it’s going to be a halfway decent camp, until they meet Ash, who is a lead guitarist. But not a jazz one. She’s also the only girl at the camp. And then, one night, she talks Wes and Corey into ditching camp and going on a “tour” as a band — just the three of them.

I wanted to like this one, and sometimes I did. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I thought that Andrews’ observations on music and hipsters and snobs and possibly even teenagers were spot-on. But, that just wasn’t enough to make me care. I made it nearly halfway before I realized that I had no desire to find out what happens on this “world tour of the south” or how Wes, Corey, and Ash deal with everything. It was funny at times. It just wasn’t interesting.

Which is too bad.

maestraMaestra
by L. S. Hilton
First sentence: “Heavy hems and vicious heels swooped and clacked over the parquet.”
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Um. Well. Let’s just say that it’s a smarter 50 Shades of Grey.  It’s in the Mystery section of all places.

I think there’s a plot to this one. By day, Judith works at an art house as a lackey — she’s super informed about art, smarter than everyone else at the art house, but she just doesn’t get respect. So, by night, she works at a house of pleasure (of sorts). I’m sure more stuff happens, but I bailed after she accidentally killed a guy in France (or was it Italy?) and went on the lamb.

I’ll admit I don’t mind sex in my books. I like sex when it’s smart, when I like the chemistry between the characters, when there’s a plot to attach itself to. I don’t go in for erotica, mostly because it’s sex and no plot. This one, I was assured, balanced the both: hot sex, interesting character, good plot.

Um. I never got past the hot sex part to see the other two. Sure, Judith was intriguing, but 100 pages in there really wasn’t much of a plot. And it’s rumored that this is a series? Seriously? I decided I was much too innocent for this one (the sex wasn’t so much hot as it was disturbing), and since the characters and plot weren’t enough to hold my interest, I bailed.