Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Review: Dancing Under the Red Star

Subtitled "The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's Gulag," this book really is an amazing story. Author Karl Tobien was an adult before his mother ever revealed her past to him, and when he heard her story, he knew it needed to be told.

Margaret Werner was eleven when she and her parents left Detroit to take a job in Russia in the early 1930s. Her father was part of a group with the Ford Motor Company that was assisting the Soviet Union in starting an auto factory in Gorky, Russia. They thought they would be there for a year.

It was 30 years before Margaret made it back to the United States. The Werner's life in Russia was terrible from the first day, when they discovered their deplorable housing conditions. Soon after they arrived, Stalin began his reign of terror, and the Ford Motor Company essentially abandoned its group of 400 workers. Margaret's father was arrested in 1938 on fake charges of treason and sentenced to prison camp. They never heard from him again.

Margaret and her mother struggled to survive in Stalinist Russia, always fearful for their lives yet determined and amazingly resilient. In 1943 the police came for Margaret, who was about 25 years old. She was charged with anti-Soviet propaganda and espionage, again a totally false charge, and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

For a decade then Margaret struggled to survive in the Russian "gulag archipelago," the forced labor and prison camp system mostly in northern Siberia. Margaret's sheer grit, wit, and determination is amazing, and she develops an amazing faith in God throughout her experiences. She also forges close friendships with her fellow women prisoners and is able to keep in brief contact with her mother.

After her release, Margaret quickly marries and has a baby (she is in her late 30s by then) and sets about to find a way to finally get back home, to the United States. Her whole life story is absolutely amazing. While this narrative is certainly not on the level of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, it is extremely readable and provides an incredible view of Stalinist Russia.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: Cowboy and Wills

When three-year-old Wills is first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, his mom takes him to buy an aquarium. From that point onward, Monica Holloway rushes to the pet store in an effort to comfort—and distract—herself and Wills from the reality of his diagnosis and all that life with autism entails. Fish, a rabbit, hamsters, hermit crabs: eventually, the only animal left to join their home menagerie is a dog.

Cowboy and Wills goes on to tell the story of how the Golden Retriever Cowboy impacts the life of this little boy as he struggles through a world that simultaneously terrifies and excites him. Cowboy, rambunctious as any pup, forces Wills to get dirty and take chances. She becomes Wills's pathway to navigating the confusing world of relationships and new experiences that come with school and life in general. From speaking to his classmates to setting up playdates to sleeping in his own bed, Wills makes tremendous progress with Cowboy by his side.

I like Holloway's voice. She doesn't hide anything, and I like that honesty. As a middle-class reader far from the excesses of California, I felt shock at the enormous amount of money she spent at the pet stores, therapists, private schools, veterinarian and more. But I loved that she felt shock, too. And what parent wouldn't spend that kind of money for her child's well-being? And I loved that Monica saw her own OCD tendencies and recognized that she needed to get her own behaviors under control for her son's sake. (As a side note, I had a really, really hard time reading about Monica's need to pick giant flakes of dead skin off of Cowboy. I really, really wish she'd left that part out of the book.)

The book leaves off when Wills is still a little guy. I hope Monica will write another one in 10 years or so, letting us know his progress. You can't help but want to be assured that everything turns out great for this lovable little guy.

Would you like a copy of this sweet book? I have an extra one to give away, so leave me a comment if you'd like to be in the running for this book! (U.S. only please.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Catching Up

These past two months I gotten way behind on posting reviews, but I'm nearly caught up now. I've hit some really excellent books this fall. Click on the titles for my reviews:

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian ****
Day After Night by Anita Diamant ****
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros****
A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary ****
Buster Midnight's Cafe and The Persian Pickle Club, both by Sandra Dallas***
The Outcast by Sadie Jones ***
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst ***
New Stories from the South, edited by ZZ Packer **

Next up, I'm hoping to teach my next literature circle for middle-schoolers focusing on the black experience in America. So far we're considering Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; Bud, Not Buddy; and Sounder. I'd welcome any suggestions! This would be for 6th-8th graders.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Review: Day After Night

I haven't read anything by Anita Diamant since The Red Tent, which I absolutely loved. Browsing the "newly arrived" shelves last week at the library, I saw Day After Night and knew I must break my rule of reading books off my current TBR list (which I do frequently) and check it out.

The novel is based on the true story of an internment camp for "illegal" Jewish refugees after World War 2 and the daring rescue of the prisoners there. The whole concept of Atlit, the British-run camp in Palestine, was completely new to me. Even my Dad, who not only fought in WW2 but is an amazing historian, had never heard of Atlit. (Then again, my Dad is somewhat hard of hearing, so he may not have heard my question. Perhaps we'll discuss that later.) It is impossible to imagine the utter horror and disgrace of these Jews, who somehow managed to live through the Holocaust, having to endure yet more imprisonment when they thought they were starting new in Eretz Yisrael.

Diamant beautifully tells the story through the lives of four detainees, all who struggle with being random survivors while their friends and family were killed in the Holocaust: Zorah survived a concentration camp; Tedi survived by hiding in the countryside; Shayndel was a Polish Zionist; and Leonie has been forced into prostitution in Paris. While their stories unfold, the rescue plans are put into place.

I absolutely loved this book. Diamant is a fantastic storyteller, and she has a gift for giving voice to relatively obscure bits of history. I'm definitely going to go back and read Diamant's Last Days of Dogtown, which I missed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Review: Skeletons at the Feast

Why have I not read anything by Chris Bohjalian before? Skeletons at the Feast is my first, and I'm excited to have a long string of other Bohjalian novels to read. In this novel, World War 2 is coming to an end, and the Emmerich family—or what is left of it—begins the journey across the war-torn Nazi Germany to reach the British and American lines before the Russians catch up with them. Along with the Emmerichs, a Prussian artistocratic family, are a Scottish POW and a Wehrmacht soldier, who is really a Jew who escaped a train headed to Auschwitz.

Woven in with the story of the this group of refugees is the story of a group of Jewish women who are forced to march from one concentration camp to another as the war winds down. I read a lot of World War 2 novels, and the description of these women is exceptionally powerful.

I am teaching a class right now to middle schoolers that focuses on World War 2 literature through various perspectives. We've read Number the Stars (Danish resistance); Snow Treasure (Norway); and will read Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes (a Japanese girl after the atomic bomb). I really appreciated Bohjalian's bringing several different perspectives together in one novel: traveling together are former Nazi supporters, a Scottish POW, and a Jew. Along the way they meet all kinds of people, and ultimately cross paths with the group of women from the concentration camp. I loved all the mixing of perspectives.

For a great list of World War II reading, be sure to check out War Through the Generations. Some of my other reviews include:
Day After Night by Anita Diamant
Sarah's Key
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I Have Lived a Thousand Years
The Nazi Officer's Wife
Jimmy's Stars (Mary Ann Rodman)
When the Emperor Was Divine (Julie Otsuka)
Briar Rose (Jane Yolen)
Night (Elie Wiesel)
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)
The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Review: The Outcast

Sadie Jones's debut novel, The Outcast, is a tragic, heartbreaking novel—but well worth the read. Jones is an excellent writer. Her characters are rich and the story is thickly woven. Set in England in the decade after World War 2, the story opens as 19-year-old Lewis is released from prison and returns to his home in the country. He's hoping to start over, but his father in anything but welcoming.

The rest of the novel goes between flashbacks of Lewis's tragic life and the current story. You can't help but root for Lewis, who lost his beloved mother at an early age and was raised by a cold-hearted father. Lewis spirals into a pit of self-despair, leading eventually to cutting. I had to question the cutting; it seems such a modern thing. I never even heard about this form of self-mutilation until the past decade or so, and I wondered about this aspect of the novel. I did just a little searching for the history of cutting and saw that it has been indeed known and documented in the past 100 years and more. Still, I didn't care for the contemporary twist on the story. Cutting too strongly evokes thoughts of emo kids for me.

But the form that Lewis takes for self-punishment (and there are others, as well), regardless of its modernity in my mind, only slightly distracted me from the excellent writing of the novel. I was totally wrapped up in the world of Lewis and his neighbors, the Carmichaels, who also play a pivotal role in the novel.

This novel reminded me somewhat of Ian McEwan's Atonement. I look forward to what Sadie Jones has next.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst has a handle on dialogue, and I'm a sucker for excellent dialogue. The Dogs of Babel is the story of a man's quest to find out the circumstances behind his wife's death. Paul comes home from work one day to find police at his house; his wife has fallen to her death from a tree in the backyard. The police says it was an accident based on the position in which she fell, but Paul isn't so sure. The only witness to Lexy's death is Lorelei, the couple's dog.

This is why I thought I wouldn't finish the book: at this point, Paul, a linguistics professor, decides to teach the dog to talk so that she can tell him what really happened to Lexy. But I kept reading, because at this point I was greatly appreciative of Parkhurst's skills with dialogue, and Paul was a very likable character. To my relief, the parts about Paul actually trying to teach the dog to talk were minimal. The rest of the book flashes between Paul's grieving process and obsession to find out how Lexy died, including his attempts to teach Lorelei to talk, and flashbacks to his life with Lexy. These flashbacks were fantastic and created an even greater sympathy for Paul. I was actually hoping Lorelei would talk eventually so he'd figure everything out.

There are some strange scenes with a secret society of pseudo-scientists who operate on dogs to make them talk, but on the whole I thought this was a really enjoyable novel. The love story behind the mysterious death is well worth the read.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: The House on Mango Street

I've had The House on Mango Street on my TBR list for a long time, and I'm so glad I finally read it. This is a story told in a series of simple but eloquent vignettes about the life of Esperanza, a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago.

I love the concept. The short vignettes to me represent both the snapshots we have as adults looking back on our childhoods, and the snapshot feel of living in that time. I can remember that feeling as life as vignette even as a child reflecting on childhood. Cisneros captures that so well.

And while the chapters are short and the language is simple, so much is going on beneath that surface: themes of poverty, racial discrimination, power, abuse, education, dreams, coming of age. Cisneros chooses her words carefully for a powerful impact.

It's not my favorite coming-of-age novel by any means. I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Separate Peace, though both of those novels show utterly different worlds. What I love so much about both of those novels is the story itself. The House on Mango Street is presented in an entirely different way, and while I enjoyed it, I prefer a novel with which I can linger and savor for more than an hour.

But don't skip The House on Mango Street. It's a quick read and a powerful one.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: First Kiss

I haven't taken part in Sunday Scribblings in such a long time, but this one kept calling to me. I was torn between the first significant kiss and the first significant kisses. I went with the First Kiss.

First Kiss

What I expected?
Under the dim light of the plaza
leaning into the phone booth,
the dark cave of his mouth. I was swallowed
up like Jonah and the whale, hoping
to surface and survive.

We learned to adjust later.

One summer night at the sunken
gardens I opened my eyes
and he was staring
across the lawn.
I —an afterthought.

There was something appealing
about his mouth.

Ten thousand other kisses later
I remember the cold white vinyl
of his letterman jacket sleeves
and the beginning of something.

Once, I was a young girl
who had a first kiss.

Feel like a little writing? Join Sunday Scribblings here.