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.)

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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.