Eternal Life

by Dara Horn
First sentence: “Either everything matters, or everything is an outrageous waste of time.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the booktstore.

Rachel has lived for centuries. Way way back, in Roman-occupied territory, she made a deal with God: save her son (the child of her and her love) and she will give over her death. Which means: she’s lived a long, long time. She’s been married many times, and reinvented herself many times. She’s had dozens and dozens of children. And yet, she’s never looked older than eighteen.

And so, in this most recent iteration of her life, her granddaughter is a scientist who is trying to solve the “problem” of death, and her lover (who also fore-swore death) has shown back up, manipulating her children’s lives, and Rachel has realized (not for the first time) that what makes life bearable is knowing that it ends.

The book was… okay. As far as musings about eternal life and what it means goes, it’s not bad. And I did finish it, so it wasn’t horrible. It just wasn’t great. It was interesting, but not compelling, and the ending was just there. Maybe I expected something more exciting (it’s about what it means to not die, after all), but really, it wasn’t all that.

Resistance

by Jennifer A. Nielsen
First sentence: “Two minutes.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, and talk of death. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Chaya is a teenager in the Krakow ghetto during World War II, and after her younger sister and brother disappeared (presumably put on a train to the death camps), Chaya decided that she wasn’t going to sit idly by and let the Nazis destroy her world. So, she joined the resistance as a courier. She could pass as a Polish (non-Jewish) girl, so she took to smuggling supplies into the ghetto and people out.

But her path didn’t end there: when things on a raid go wrong, Chaya and her friend Esther find themselves on the road to Warsaw, dodging Nazis and Nazi sympathizers until they get to Warsaw and are able to join the Jewish resistance for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (which was a real thing).

This is really good historical fiction, if you’re not already tired of World War II stories. I got the distinct impression that Nielsen was trying to use this as a lesson for the climate in the US today — there were multiple references to people who just sit idly by and watch the horrors of the world being on the wrong side of the fence — but honestly? I’m tired. I know Holocaust stories are important. And I believe that everyone should learn about them, so we don’t repeat history. I’m just, personally, quite done with them. I liked Chaya well enough, I respected her journey, I got that Nielsen was telling me that I needed to be more pro-active in resisting hate and evil in this world.

But all that said, I didn’t quite like the book. I think it’s me, though, and not the book.

Spinning Silver

by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.”
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Content: There is some domestic violence and other violence as well as some more mature themes. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore. 

If you’ve read Novik’s Uprooted, then you know what you’re in for with this book. (If you haven’t read Uprooted, why not?) 

This takes place in much of the same place that Uprooted does: a vaguely Eastern-European/Russian country. We follow the story of Miryem, the daughter of an inept Jewish money lender, who decides to take on the family business for herself. She becomes successful enough that it captures the attention of the Staryk, a viscous race of faerie who, during the winter, stole from the humans, goods, yes, but often money. She is tasked with turning silver into gold — which she does — and as a “reward” is kidnapped and taken to the Staryk kingdom. 

So, yes: shades of Rumplestiltskin, but the inferences go deeper. There is playing with names and the importance of them (everyone who reads a lot of fantasy knows that one’s true name is to be kept close because there is magical power in them). But, there’s also a demon and quite a few very very smart women who are willing and able to play the system to get what’s not only best for them, but also for the country. 

My only real complaint is the shifting narrative — but that’s just because I’m in the middle of the Cybils, and it seems like there’s a lot of shifting narrative books out there and I’m a bit over it. I love the way Novik plays with fairy tales, meshing them with religion and folklore to create something wholly her own. 

Excellent. 

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. ”
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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.

 

Young Jane Young

by Gabrielle Zevin
First sentence: “My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including several f-bombs, as well as some off-screen sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Release date: August 22, 2017

The relationship between mothers and daughters (and between women in general) is not a new topic for fiction. It’s been Done.  And yet, Zevin — through this tale of an intern, Aviva, who has an affair with her boss, who just happens to be a congressman — manages to make this tired trope fresh. We get the story from four perspectives: Rachel, Aviva’s mother ; Aviva — both then and now, as Jane; Ruby, the intern’s daughter; and the congressman’s wife. It’s a unique way of telling the story, in bits and pieces (you don’t get Aviva’s then perspective until the very end, and it comes as a sort of “choose your own adventure” tale, one in which she wishes she could change her decisions), and from different perspectives. Choices have consequences, more so for women in these situations (so, whatever did happen to Monica Lewinsky?) than for men. It’s a fascinating study of our scandal-obsessed culture (really, are famous people’s private lives really news?) and how we’re much more willing to forgive men than we are women. (I think that’s the most biting thing: that Aviva is much more harshly judged than the congressman ever was.) And how relationships between mothers and daughters are not always straightforward. And what one person says isn’t always what the other person hears.

I love the way Zevin spins a story, and the way she is able to make characters pop to life. She doesn’t dumb down the kids (or make them too precocious; Ruby was the right balance of nerdy and eager), and she makes everyone sufficiently complicated.

Definitely highly recommended.

Audiobook: The Boston Girl

bostongirlby Anita Diamant
Read by: Linda Lavin
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Content: There are some mild swear words and references to drinking and smoking. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Addie Baum is the daughter of Eastern European immigrants, who came to American when the persecution became too bad back home. Addie was born in 1900 in Boston, and grew up in a world wholly different from that her parents, and even her older sisters (the youngest who was 14 years older than Addie), knew. It was a world where Addie went to school instead of getting married young and having babies. A world where she held a job and chose love for herself. A fascinating, modern world, but one that put her at odds with her parents — especially her mother — and the way of life they had always known.

I loved this one from the start. It begins as a series of reflections of an 85-year-old Addie in response to the question asked by her 22-year-old granddaughter: “How did you get to be the woman you are today?” The whole novel felt like a personal history, complete with asides that a grandmother would say in the telling. And while it covered Addie’s whole life, the focus was on her formative years from when she was 15 until she met and married her husband. The opportunities she had (because of the people she met), her struggles with family and religion and men, her jobs and the experiences she had because of them. It was a fascinating slice of life.

And the narrator was perfect. She caught that personal history vibe and ran with it; so very often I could almost see Addie, sitting in her living room, telling this story to an interested granddaughter. No, she didn’t do voices, though she had a good Boston accent overall, but I don’t think it was needed for this. The way Lavin read it was just perfect.

As was this story.

The Hired Girl

by Laura Amy Schlitz
First sentence: “Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book.”
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Content:  There’s some harsh illusions to domestic violence in the beginning and some illusions to sex near the end, but nothing actual. It’s in the YA (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Joan is a 14-year-old Pennsylvania farm girl in the early 1900s who longs to be Educated and See the World. However, ever since her mother died, she has been increasingly chained to the farm by her boorish and harsh father. He forces her to withdraw from the local school, but the last straw was when he burned her books. So, she packs up in the middle of the night, and heads to Baltimore to Make Her Fortune.

Her fortune turns out to be Solomon Rosenbach, who finds her distraught in the park with nowhere to go. He brings her home and his mother hires Joan — who is pretending to be 18 and is going by Janet — to be the hired girl. From there, Joan becomes a part of the Rosenbach family’s lives, sometimes with positive results and other times not so much.

It sounds pretty mundane, but in Schlitz’s hands, this time period comes alive. Not only does she capture the cusp of the women’s movement: the idea that women can be educated and can be live without husbands and fathers, she captures a girl who is out discovering not only the world, but herself. Additionally, Joan’s voice is so captivating that it makes the book a delight to read.

But what I liked best — being religious myself — is the way Schlitz addressed religion. The Rosenbach’s are Jewish, and while not Orthodox, they do practice their religion. And Joan is a Catholic. Or at least, she’d like to be because her mother was. Schlitz explores prejudice and Antisemitism, explores how to practice your own religion while respecting that of other people around you. All of which is not only relevant, but interesting.

I do have to admit that I kind of lost interest near the end, when there is some Drama involving another Rosenbach son. But, Schlitz even handled that well, and the last chapter gave the book a good ending.

Overall, a good book.

Enchanted Air

by Margarita Engle
First sentence: “When my parents met, it was love at first sight.”
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Content: It talks indirectly about drugs, sex, and teen pregnancy, as well as the violence of war, but it doesn’t dwell on that. It’ll be in the children’s biography section of the bookstore

I noticed that Abby had read this one and liked it, so I pulled it off my pile to give it a try. I mostly wanted something I could finish in one sitting, and this one — being a memoir in verse — fit the bill.

I didn’t expect to be thoroughly delighted by it.

Margarita is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and the son of Ukranian holocaust survivors. Needless to say, she had an interesting story to start. Add to that the conflict in the 1950s with the Cuban revolution and the subsequent cold war, she definitely had  a story to tell. But: she chose to tell it through travel, through depictions of the island itself (which she described so lushly) as well as her family’s vacations to Mexico and Europe. She portrayed herself as an awkward child, caught between two countries and then unexpectedly cut off from half of her family. I can only imagine what her mother felt.

Elegantly told, beautifully imagined, it’s a love story to the power of words and images and home. (And I’m glad that her hope in her afterward for more normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba may slowly be coming to fruition. I would love to visit there someday.)

How to Be a Heroine

by Samantha Eliis
First sentence: “A couple of summers ago, I was on the Yorkshire moors, arguing (over the wuthering) with my best friend about whether we’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Ernshaw.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful — not more than six — of f-bombs and some mentions of sex, but nothing graphic. It’s in the adult creative nonfiction section of the bookstore, but I’d give this to anyone in high school and up.

Somehow, I ended up with a complimentary copy of this book. I really have no idea how it ended up on my pile. I do know the idea of it (and the subtitle: “Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much”) appealed to me. Any book that is about books or the love of reading has to be good, right?

And it was.

The book is nominally a reflection of Ellis’s life. She’s an Iraqi Jew, living in London, with all the cultural and religious implications you’d think that entails. She struggled against expectations, she struggled with faith, she struggled to find her own path. And, on its own that would be a fascinating story. But she framed the book with an analysis, heavily feminist, of classic heroines. From familiar to me ones like Jo March and Anne Shirley and Jane Eyre to ones I’ve never heard of, like Franny Glass and Esther Greenwood. She explored their narrative arcs, and what she took away from their stories. Both when she was younger and then, as an adult, how she feels the held up. Some did. A lot didn’t. And many she got something different out of the book than what she got when she was younger. She discovered new things along the way, and made me want to revisit books I’d loved when I was younger and read ones I’ve not read before.

And for all the literary criticism, it wasn’t a stuffy book. Ellis has a way of drawing the reader in, of making the characters pop to life. Perhaps that’s because she’s a playwright and has a way with words as it is. But whatever the reason, this one won my heart over.

Graphic Novel Roundup, June 2014

I discovered that 1) I’m reading more graphic novels than usual right now. Perhaps because I’m picking up a bunch for K at the library due to summer reading. Her goal is to read 36 graphic novels by the end of July. She’s read 15 so far. And 2) I really like these graphic novel roundups. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month.

Will & Whit
by Laura Lee Gulledge
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Content: The cover is misleading; it’s not a romance. Not really. Thematically, it’s a little mature — it’s in the teen graphic novel section — but I’d give it to an interested 10- or 11-year-old.

The Will in the title is Wilhelmina Huckstep,  girl whose parents died in an accident recently, the summer before her senior year. She’s living with her aunt, who runs the family antiques store. The Whit in the story is Tropical Storm Whitney which causes the entire town to lose power, thereby creating a situation where everyone has to be unplugged from their technology and interact with each other. It’s delightfully drawn, and balances the dark — Will grieving for her parents and trying not to be a burden — and light — her wonderfully eclectic friends, and the Penny Farthing carnival they put on. There is some romance, with a couple of Will’s friends, but it was very sweet and not at all central to the plot. A delightful summer read.

Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite
by Barry Deutsch
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Others in the series: How Mirka Got her Sword
Content: There’s nothing. I’d let K read this, though she might be a bit confused with the Yiddish words. It’s in the middle reader graphic novel section.

Mirka has her sword, but she longs for more adventures. Instead, she’s stuck at home, knitting berets (its the only thing she can knit) because she’s grounded. Her stepmother, Fruma, just wants her to make reasonable choices. But Mirka is impulsive — something I love about her — and as soon as she could, she went back to the troll for her sword, craving something More. Then the troll sends a meteorite to earth, and the witch changes it into another Mirka. Suddenly, Mirka’s got someone she hast to share her life with. It’s complicated, and Mirka learns that adventures sometimes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Like the first, this one is a delightful mix of Orthodox Judiasm and fantasy. And it works wonderfully. I adore Mirka, I love learning about her life, and I love the adventures Deutsch gives her. Fantastic.

A Game for Swallows
by Zeina Abirached
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Content: There’s some talk of war and killing, so thematically it’s pretty intense. But, I wouldn’t object to giving it to a 10- or 11-year-old, if they expressed interest. It would been in the teen graphic novel section.

I know absolutely nothing of the Lebanese civil war that happened in from 1975 to 1990. I was a teenager in a small town in America, and it just wasn’t on my radar. But, thanks to Abirached, I have gotten a glimpse into what life was like for those going through it. The book takes place entirely in one night in the foyer of the apartment of two children as they wait for their parents to come back from their grandparents’ house. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but in East Beirut, full of shelling and snipers, it is. The foyer is the only safe place in the apartment, and their neighbors — from the young(ish) handyman to the older couple to the former French teacher to the older woman who has been a nanny for a family for 65 years — congregate there in the evenings. The mood ranges from celebratory — they make a cake and enjoy a game of Scrabble — to tense — when they find out that the children’s parents had left an hour earlier and had still not arrived. It’s a picture to how life goes on in the face of war, in the face of uncertainty and in the face of death. Done in very stark black-and-white drawings, it’s a very simple and powerful tale of human resilience.