Flocks

by L. Nichols
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing and two f-bombs, plus some drinking and self harm and illusions to sex. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ll be up front: Nichols is a transgender man who was assigned female at birth in Louisiana and raised in a very religious Southern Baptist family.This is his story.

It’s not just a story of feeling out of place in a religious society — he tried very very hard to pray the gay away from the time he was young — but also feeling out of place in his own body. The only place he felt at home and at peace was in nature. He graduated from high school and went to MIT (the first in his family to go to college) where the sense of displacement both increased and decreased. Decreased because he was among friends who accepted him and cared about him for who he was; increased because he loathed his body — he began cutting himself — and couldn’t figure out why (that is, until he had a realization that it was because he wasn’t male enough). It’s a very personal story, as one would expect from a memoir, but one that raises some interesting questions about religion and community.

I loved Nichols’ art as well. Everyone is drawn fairly realistically except him, and he’s in this doll-esque shape, which I loved because it allowed him to not only be the gender he was assigned at birth (while simultaneously demonstrating his obvious discomfort with himself) but it allows the reader to empathize more with him as a character. It’s quite clever, and I loved it.

I also loved that this made me think, not just about trans people, but about how communities include and exclude others and the benefits and disadvantages of that. I appreciated his (inadvertent) critique of religion vs. God and it made me want to be more open and kind to others. We’re all struggling here, why add hate to the pile?

Excellent.

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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.

 

A Short Stay in Hell

by Stephen Peck
First sentence: “Although I have loved many, there has been only one genuine love in my near-eternally stretched life — Rachel who fell to the bottom of the library without me.”
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Content: There’s some violence. It would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, if we carried it.

This was not the Stephen Peck book I set out to read. I was supposed to read Scholar of Moab, but about 1/3 into that, the apostrophes were driving me nuts (they were in the wrong place — do’nt as opposed to don’t — and while I understood why they were that way, it didn’t stop it from pulling me out of the story) and so Russell threw this book at me and said I might like it better.

The idea behind it is that everyone’s idea of the afterlife is wrong (except for the Zoroastrians). And our main character, who was a good Mormon in this life, is in hell. Which happens to be a big library, containing every possible book that could ever be written. Which means, it’s very very very very very large. The idea for him to get out of hell is to find the book containing his story, except that’s an impossible task. (Well not impossible, just very very very hard.) It follows him as he meets people, is part of a university, finds and loses his love, gets captured by a wack job, falls for days, and on and on. It’s an exercise in trying to grasp what infinity means (spoiler: you can’t).

And while I liked it enough to finish it (it was short, which helped), I’m not sure I get what makes Peck such a great writer. Maybe it’s because I’m too literal a reader (plausible), and his works are full of symbolism and metaphor and satire, all of which escape me. Give me a good plot, some great characters, and decent writing and I’m happy.

At least I tried.

The Book of Boy

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
First sentence: “This story, like another, begins with an apple.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Content: There is some challenging language, because it’s set in medieval times, but with the large print, short(ish) length, and illustrations, a younger kid/reluctant reader could enjoy it. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Things that surprised me about The Book of Boy: How religious it was (though I don’t know why that did; it’s set in 1350 in Italy, and religion was a huge part of everyday life), how much I didn’t mind it’s religious nature, and how charmed I was by Boy and the pilgrim he went on a quest with.

Things I’m unsure about: the speculative(ish) element of it. See, Boy is a humpback child, and was told to keep his hump covered and hidden and never touch it. He’s shunned because of this — this felt “true”, even though I don’t know if people who didn’t look whole were shunned, but that’s what stories have always led me to believe — by everyone except a wayward pilgrim on a quest to collect the relics of St. Peter. But, once on the quest, Boy discovers that his hump is not an ordinary one, which is a blessing and a curse.

Things I really enjoyed: I loved the narrative style of the book. I think Murdock caught the inner voice of this naive character, who was doing what he was supposed to, and unsure about his own future and any changes. I loved that Boy could talk to animals, and that the animals helped him when he needed it. And I really enjoyed the whole quest: there were challenges along the way, and both Boy and the pilgrim needed each other. It was very sweet and charming.

Overall, a good book.

Does My Head Look Big in This?

by Randa Abdel-Fattah
First sentence: “It hit me when I was power walking on the treadmill at home, watching a Friends rerun for about the ninetieth time.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, if we had it.

Amal is an Australain-Muslim-Palestinian girl attending a prep school for her 11th grade year, and she has just made a big decision: she is a faithful Muslim, and she wants to express that faith by wearing the hijab full time. Except. She’s the only Muslim in her school, it’s right after 9/11, and, well, let’s say that people, even in Melbourne, aren’t that open-minded.

But Amal is determined to make it work. She faces down the disapproval of her headmistress, the questions of her (non-Muslim) friends, the bullying and badmouthing of the close-minded, and she comes out much better for the experience.

It’s a simple plot; no massive twists or turns, no real huge conflict with a tear-jerker reveal. Just a simple, true-to-life story about a religious girl trying to live her life. And I loved it. I loved Amal and the way she made the decision, but the way she kept having to reaffirm the decision to herself. Being religious in a secular world isn’t always easy, and Abdel-Fattah reflected that. I also loved how she wrote about Amal’s faith. It’s hard to put into words, but I felt that she got what it means to be religious. (I’m sure she does.) The book did feel a little dated; it’s set in 2002 and was written in 2005, but I think it’s still necessary. And it’s really a charming story.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare
First sentence: “On a morning in mid-April 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor.”
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Content: There’s some violence, but it’s off screen. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

I adored this book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember how I got this book, or why I got it, but I do remember reading and re-reading it endlessly. In fact, my copy, which I still have, is quite battered. I’m knee-deep in a Newbery Medal section of my class, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to see if this story held up to my recollections of it (and if I could remember why I liked it so much).

Kit Tyler is in a precarious position: raised by her grandfather on Barbados after her parents’ deaths, she is left penniless and mostly without family after his death. So, she throws everything on traveling to America, to live with her mother’s sister, whom she’s never met, in a Puritan Connecticut settlement. For most of the book, it’s a fish-out-of-water story: Kit tries and fails to fit into this strict religious community. She’s flashy, she’s never worked (they had slaves; I found some of the dichotomy between the British slave-owners in the Caribbean and the land owners in America to be interesting), she, of course is always in trouble. But Kit’s growth arc in this book is significant: after meeting Hannah, a Quaker who is ostracized from the community because she doesn’t attend Puritan services and branded a “witch”, Kit learns that having friends and helping others really is the best thing. Oh, and then there’s Nat.

Actually, I think, in the end, it was the love story between Kit and Nat that I liked as a teenager. I liked the push and pull of their relationship, how neither of them quite figured out they were Meant To Be until it was almost too late. It was very satisfying, to say the least. The other thing I got out of this was that Puritans were Awful.  At least in historical fiction. They are quick to judge, closed-minded, insular, and set on being against everything that is different or not plain. I don’t think Speare set out to condemn them; they’re not wholly bad as a group and there are some redeemable characters. But as a whole, Purtians are definitely awful.

In the end, I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did when I was younger, but I do see why I liked it so much. And it’s a good book, overall.

American Heart

by Laura Moriarty
First sentence: “One thing someone just meeting me might want to know is why I have two first names.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 30. 2018
Content: There are some disturbing situations, including an almost rape and violence against minorities. It will be in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Sarah-Mary and her younger brother are living with their aunt in Hannibal, Missouri, because their mother is one of those Bad Mothers who can’t take care of her children. Her younger brother is okay with this (except for the missing mom part), but it chafes with Sarah-Mary. She has a limited amount of freedom, which chafes. And then, she and her brother meet an Iranian woman, whom Sarah-Mary ends up calling Chloe, who is  on the run, avoiding the mandatory Muslim registry that has been implemented for “our safety”. Her brother begs Sarah-Mary to help get Chloe to safety in Canada, and of course Sarah-Mary promises. And thus begins the adventure.

It’s not a pleasant one, either. Moriarty attempts to focus on the wrongness of profiling people by race or religion (there’s this scene where Sarah-Mary witnesses a raid on a house where the person was harboring Muslims) and touches on prejudice and discrimination. She also make sure that the dangers of two women hitchhiking are amply described.  Nothing “bad” ever happens, but the novel brushes up against it several times, and it’s only through luck, wit, and technology that Sarah-Mary and Chloe get away.

And along the way Sarah-Mary learns the one great lesson that we all need to learn, especially right now: people are people. They all have hopes, dreams, and stories. And that judging a whole religion or race by one person’s actions not only is not fair, it’s wrong. However, the Muslim registry doesn’t miraculously go away at the end of the book, nor does Sarah-Mary’s actions have a larger Meaning, so maybe Moriarty missed the mark on something big here.

Perhaps, though, that’s also the problem with the book. That Sarah-Mary (read: white people) needed a Muslim woman (read: any diverse person of color) to Show Her the Way. As a concept, it’s clumsy, and I’ve read some responses on the book that lead me to think that it might be harmful, reinforcing White Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and just the White Savior narrative. I did enjoy this while reading it, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it was the best idea for a white woman to tackle something like this.