Friday, October 30, 2015

Review of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow is a novel that explores the experience of a biracial teenager in the 1980s. Rachel’s father is African-American, and her mother was Danish. She is living with her grandmother in an African-American community in Portland, Oregon, where she stands out because of her blue eyes. Much of the story follows Rachel as she grapples with becoming a person who is both black and white, and yet, in the eyes of society, neither one.

There is also a tragic premise that surrounds this identity story.  Rachel, her little brother, her baby sister, and her mother all fell (or were pushed?) from the roof of their apartment complex in Chicago. Rachel was the only survivor, and her father has vanished. The reader slowly learns what really happened to the family and why, and in the meantime, gets to play around with Durrow’s big metaphors about birds and flying and freedom.

I have said in several reviews that I get frustrated with books that are organized around a “message.” I often find that plot developments that serve the “message” are both too complicated and too convenient, and distract me from interesting characters. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, which won the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is another one of those books. The shifting perspectives and diary entries and the volume of characters in this novel pulled me away from the really good coming-of-age story that was at the center. Ultimately, I don’t think that Rachel and her family needed to fall from the sky in order to be compelling.

I do think that this novel, though marketed to adults, is an even better book for teens.* Rachel’s experience in school, in her social life, and in her extended family offer a glimpse into what it feels like to navigate expectations about race and also to develop a sense of self that incorporates complexity. It would shine as a YA title in a way that it doesn’t as a mainstream literary novel.

You can read an interesting interview with Durrow here. She also writes a blog called Light-Skinned-ed Girl.

*Involves sexual situations and domestic abuse. I’d say it’s best for 13 and up, but choose with your own kid in mind.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

My first piece of advice when approaching this book: Do not read reviews (except for this one).  You can read this one because I am not going to compare it to any other book, and I am not going to tell you about the plot. But don’t go to Goodreads. Don’t read the review in the New York Times. Ignore the Washington Post. All I can say about those reviews is that spoilers abound. Come to think of it, don’t even read description on the book jacket.

Here is what I will say:

It took me 7 days to read the first 200 pages. I thought the story was very arty farty, meticulously crafted, gorgeous, but pretentious.

It took me 1 day to read the remaining 200 pages. Suddenly, the story became gripping. My heart raced. I couldn’t put it down.

This is a novel about a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde meet in college and grow together into middle age. They act like partners in his rise to creative stardom, appear to be joined in every way. But a question emerges about how well one person can ever know another person. Can you really share your truest self?

This book could spark a thousand conversations about art and love, about the function of childhood pain in creative work, and about role-playing in relationships. All of these things could bring very literary readers to this novel, and they would be satisfied. But this book could also attract more general readers, people who like to rise up from their beach chairs between sips of tropical beverage and holler, “WTF! Did that just happen?” The problem is that the beach chair readers would need to wade through 200 pages of deep thought, and the literary readers would need to be able to relax and let go of deep thought.  In a way, the beginning and the end are two separate books, married to look like one.

This novel is a 2015 National Book Award finalist.

Here’s an interview with Groff (But spoilers! Don’t read it until you’ve finished the novel.  I mean it!).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

And The Lucky Birthday Gift Recipient Is...

Elizabeth @ Silver's Reviews!

I tried to find a real birthday hat to use for the drawing, but my drugstore has pushed aside the birthday merchandise to start selling Christmas gear…in October.  Ho Ho Ho? So Elizabeth, I drew your name out of a birthday bag instead. Get ready to receive a fun package in the mail! (And the rest of you, I’ll let you know what’s in it once she as a chance to be surprised….)

Thanks to all of you for making this year so fantastic! I’m looking forward to jabbering with you about books for years to come.

Monday, October 19, 2015

It's Monday, and I'm Reminding You One Last Time About My Blog Birthday

My reading life (my whole life, actually) continues to be diverted by work. Last week I re-read two books for work that I won’t be blogging about here: Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 by David Wallace Adams and Education for Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 by James D. Anderson.  I also finished – cue the triumphant music – A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson. In a strange twist, I ended up liking that book, despite many complaints along the way.
Currently, I am half way through Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. And after that, I am going to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I am so far down on the library list that I’ve decided to just buy it. I am so excited to participate in the conversation around this book. I will consider it a gift to myself in honor of the first birthday of The Leaning Stack of Books.

Have I mentioned that? The blog is having a birthday! And I will be giving a birthday present to one lucky reader whose name will be drawn from a birthday hat TOMORROW! The present will be the book that I enjoyed the most between October 2014 and October 2015.

There’s still time to play along – here’s how you can join in on the fun:

1)   Write a comment on this post where you tell me the title of YOUR favorite book from the past year. Be sure to sign some sort of name at the end if you choose “Anonymous” as your Blogger ID.

2)   Go to The Leaning Stack of Books Facebook Page, and tell me the title of your favorite book from the past year.

3)   Tweet the title of your favorite book from the past year, directed @jenpreisman and with the hashtag #leaningstackofbooks

Thanks to everyone who has already participated. I’ll post the name of the lucky gift recipient tomorrow evening.

Happy reading week, everyone!

(The It's Monday! What Are You Reading? meme is hosted by The Book Date)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Review of A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Before I get started, I want to throw out another reminder that The Leaning Stack of Books is having a birthday! I’m giving one lucky reader a copy of the book I’ve enjoyed the most over the past year. What do you have to do to participate? Just let me know the title of your favorite book from the last twelve months. Easy! On Tuesday, October 20, I’ll let everyone know who’s going to get a fun package in the mail.

And now onto other news! I finally – FINALLY-- finished Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins. It took me longer to read this one than it did to read Purity, and that’s saying something. But here’s the thing that will surprise you if you’ve stayed with me as I’ve whined about this book – I really liked it. Or, more accurately, I really liked it once I got to the ending.

This book is billed as a “companion piece” to 2013’s Life After Life, which is a novel that follows one character, Ursula, through several versions of her life. The reader gets to see how small choices alter and shape families and communities and world events. Atkinson received a lot of positive press for shaking up Life After Life’s structure in an interesting way.  And once I adjusted to the rhythm of that unusual story, I was captivated.

A God In Ruins follows Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, but the structure is different. The reader doesn’t follow different iterations of Teddy’s life but instead gets to jump back and forth in time with him. We see him as a young man, when he is a pilot in World War II. We see him as a small child. We see him as a father, as a grandfather, and as a very old man.  What emerges is a rather ordinary portrait of a nice guy.  Often, life gives him lemons. Sometimes he makes lemonade, and sometimes he doesn’t.

The back-and-forth-in-time narration seems to dull some of the suspense that might occur in a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  There are many war scenes, and those should be exciting. But Atkinson often writes some elegant version of this kind of sentence in the middle of a chapter:

Teddy would reflect back on this very exciting and scary life-and-death moment from his rocking chair in old age.

The result is that the reader feels reassured that everything is going to work out, though it certainly makes for a less intense reading experience.

So far this sounds like a critique, right? But here’s the thing: this is a novel that is more than it seems. For hundreds of pages, I wondered how this meandering look at a regular guy could possibly be a companion to Life After Life. But because I enjoy Atkinson so much, I should have trusted her. It IS a companion. So if you’re feeling puzzled while reading this book, stop scratching your head. Just hang on, and trust her. TRUST. Just be sure to make it to the very end.

I don’t have much of a memory for the details of Life After Life, and that didn’t impact my experience with this book at all. Other reviewers have mentioned all the crossover characters, but I wasn’t aware of many of them. So, from my perspective, you can read A God In Ruins as a stand-alone piece if you want. What you’ll lose, however, is the connection between the two, and that, I think, is where the magic lies.

An aside: Atkinson writes an author’s note at the end where she tries to justify her choices in this book. I wondered why she felt the need to give so much explanation. However, she also gives a lens into all the research she did about World War II bombing raids. The war scenes are meticulously detailed, and it was interesting to learn about how she constructed them.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Leaning Stack of Books: Not a Baby Anymore!

The air is crisp, and there’s a patchwork of color on the trees. That means that there’s a special holiday coming up!

The Leaning Stack of Books is turning 1!

I’ve enjoyed spending this year with you in the blogosphere and am excited to see what blog toddlerhood brings. Thank you for being such loyal readers! In honor of this momentous occasion, I’d like to give one special reader a birthday gift. That’s right! The blog has a birthday, and YOU might get a gift. The gift will be a copy of the book that I’ve enjoyed the most over the past year – wrapped and delivered to you.

To join in the fun, please do one of the following between today and October 20:

Leave a comment on any blog post during this week that includes the title of the book you’ve enjoyed the most from October 2014 to October 2015. If you post anonymously, be sure to sign some identifiable name at the end.

Go to The Leaning Stack of Books Facebook Page and make a comment on this post that includes the title of the book you’ve enjoyed the most from October 2014 to October 2015.  Once you’ve done that, please share the post on your page, because I’d love for more people to join in on the fun.

Post on Twitter the title of the book you’ve enjoyed the most from October 2014 to October 2015. Add the hashtag #leaningstackofbooks and direct it toward me @jenpreisman

Please feel free to get your friends involved. The more the merrier! I’m still in the process of getting the word out about this blog, and I would really appreciate your help. If you know bookish people, send them this way.

Next Tuesday, October 20 – while eating cake – I’ll pick a name at random out of a birthday hat. I’ll announce the lucky duck, and then we’ll figure out how to get the package to you.

Ready? Set! Go!

Monday, October 5, 2015

It's Monday! And I Need To Stop Complaining!

I always feel like such a loser when I don’t have much to show for my reading week. I’ve been lost in the middle of Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins for ten days. I have no real excuse – the book is just fine, and I'm enjoying it.  Somehow I keep reading and reading, and yet there’s still half of it left. I had the same experience while reading Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, but I blamed that on his sexism. It turns out that I might not be able to pin my problems on him after all.
I did decide to teach a class for this quarter at the last minute, and that has meant reading things that aren’t interesting to the average blog reader (e.g. Carl Kaestle’s Pillars of the Republic). By the end of the day, when I sit down with Atkinson, my eyes are bleary.

I do need to amp things up a bit. I note with a sense of dread that I am falling very far behind on my two reading challenges this year. The first is the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I have read 5 of my intended 12 so far. The other is my very own Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo game. I need to plot out where I am on the bingo game card, but I know the results aren’t going to be pretty. Remember that this is a drinking game, so I’m going to be very sober at the end of the year if I don't get my butt in gear.

Perhaps I need to channel my inner Joe Rantz, from The Boys in the Boat. After all, his family abandoned him when he was just a kid. He lived alone in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, where he somehow managed to get educated, locate food, start a little illegal business involving salmon, get himself to college, and participate in the Olympics. He had very little money, and it rained constantly. Did he whine that he didn’t have enough time to get through his reading list? No.

The book in my on-deck circle this week will not help me address any of my reading challenge problems, but I’m excited. I just received Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies from the library. Here’s the description from Goodreads:

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed. With stunning revelations and multiple threads, and in prose that is vibrantly alive and original, Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it.

If, by some miracle, I finish both A God In Ruins and Fates and Furies with days in the week to spare, I’m going to pick the shortest book in my leaning stack and read that. Perhaps that will be my strategy to avoid drowning in novels. New motto: short and sweet.

(The It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? meme is hosted by Book Journey)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review of The Boys In the Boat by Daniel James Brown

I finally got around to reading The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. I completely understand why this book received so many rave reviews from critics and readers alike. Somehow, Brown managed to make a book about a somewhat obscure historical sporting event deeply compelling and accessible.  I never would have picked this book up without the buzz, so I’m very glad for all the press this one received. This is truly terrific narrative nonfiction – meticulously researched and richly described.

The story follows the University of Washington 1936 Varsity Crew team’s path to the Olympics. The role of the 1936 Olympics in obscuring Nazi activity is a subplot of this book, and it also makes it clear which team the reader is supposed to root for in the race (hint: America).

The main “character” Brown follows is Joe Rantz, a boy who grew up in rural Washington State with few resources. OK, that is an understatement. Rantz grew up in Depression-era rural Washington with an evil stepmother. He was eventually abandoned by his whole family and had to fend for himself. The reader follows Rantz as he tries to support himself as a kid on his own, as he gets himself into college, and as he finds his way to the crew team and then works to stay there. In this sense, The Boys in the Boat can be seen as a story of individual “grit.” How does this boy push himself up and over obstacles to succeed?

The other part of the story concerns the crew team and the coaches that built this winning team without much money or a legacy of support. The head coach found that his top athletes, who were so strong as individuals, didn’t always work together well. There was something in the relationship between the athletes that was important. In this sense, The Boys in the Boat can be seen as a story of the value of connection and trust and common endeavor.

These two themes – the triumph of the individual against-all-odds and the deep value of community -- are clichés in sports stories, so The Boys in the Boat isn’t really journeying into new territory here. But, if my book club conversation is any indication, both of these themes continue to matter. We talked about the parental role in developing “grit,” but we also saw that individual grit alone wasn’t enough to propel success for Rantz and his teammates. There had to be “public” support (mentorship; institutional commitment; the commitment to develop relationships, etc.).

That question – whether “success” is a result of individual characteristics and behaviors or a result of social conditions created by policy -- is an issue that policy makers continue to deliberate. When Paul Tough released How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character in 2012, critics suggested that the conversation about grit was deflecting from the fact that we are reducing our public funding of institutions that build strong communities and networks. An example of that can be found in public willingness to invest in character education programs in schools that serve low-income students while reducing funding for after-school programs, community centers, and family support.  The flip side can be seen in affluent communities, where there are all sorts of community supports but very little willingness to let children experience obstacles.

While The Boys in the Boat fits into this larger conversation, this is still a book about sports. My heart pounded during the sports scenes, even though I don’t really care about crew races, and I was pretty clear about who was going to win. It is being made into a movie, which will likely involve buff young actors, triumphant music, and a feel-good ending. When it makes it to the big screen, I will be in the audience, with popcorn.

You can find a good interview with Brown here. He helpfully points out that he is NOT the DaVinci Code Dan Brown.