Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: Olive Kitteridge

I didn't know what I was getting into when I began reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. That's kind of what I do: I put a book on my TBR list because of a glowing recommendation or 12, and then I forget all details about the book, completely trusting myself that I want to read it. And so I had no idea that Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 individual stories that take place in the little town of Crosby, Maine, all linked by one formidable woman: Olive Kitteridge.

In many ways it's a modern-day Winesburg, Ohio, although a bit more cheerful, if my memory serves me right. I haven't read Sherwood Anderson's collection of linked stories in over 20 years, but I remember feeling rather depressed upon finishing. (Obviously, I'll have to go back and read this now.) Strout follows a similar formula in Olive Kitteridge. Each story is a slice of life of one character or family in Crosby, Maine: a young man about to commit suicide, a widow who discovers that her husband had an affair, an anorexic addict. Somewhere in the story his or her life crosses paths with Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes Olive just has a cameo, but often she plays a pivotal role in the story.

The stories encompass about 30 years, from the time Olive is a middle-school English teacher who terrifies most students, to her life as a widow, struggling to come to terms with who she was and is. In stories that feature other characters, we see Olive is a variety of dimensions: is she a hardened old witch, or a compassionate caretaker? Was she an abusive mother or an encouraging friend? If you've ever experienced that disconcerting feeling that comes when someone describes you in a surprising way—a way that you don't think about yourself—you'll appreciate the way Strout reveals the multi-dimensional Olive.

I've been saying this a lot lately (October and November have been great reading months!), but Olive Kitteridge will surely land on my Top 10 list this year. Beautiful writing, fascinating stories, and rich characters—it's all there. I don't always say this, but I'm glad this one won last year's Pulitzer.

Other Reviews of Olive Kitteridge
Babette's Book Blog
She Is Too Fond of Books
Home Girl's Book Blog
Gently Hew Stone
Peeking Between the Pages
Book Club Classics

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Girl in Translation

I sure do love the book blogging community. Probably 80% of the books I read are ones that I've found via another blogger's review. I read about Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation at Books and Movies just a month or so ago and added it to my TBR list. Often books sit on my TBR list for months or even years, but Girl in Translation happened to be on the shelves at the library.

I hardly put it down all weekend. (Well, except for when I was cooking, cleaning, taking kids places, doing laundry, lessons plans, etc. etc.) I absolutely loved this book. Jean Kwok is an extraordinary writer, and this story is unforgettable—and I don't say that very often.

Kimberly Chang and her mother have emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. At 11, Kimberly speaks a little English, but her mother neither speaks nor understands English at all. Kimberly's aunt "graciously" puts them up in a run-down, roach-and-rodent infested tenement without any heat. Kimberly begins attending school, and in spite of the language barrier, her teachers recognize that she is intellectually gifted.

For the next many years, Kimberly lives a double life: she is a star pupil by day, and a sweatshop worker in Chinatown by night. She perseveres in a school where she longs to fit in, just like any American teenager, but with the added difficulties of being an immigrant living in abject poverty. In the evenings at the sweatshop, she struggles with her aunt's outrageous jealousy as well as her passion for a fellow worker.

Everything about this book was excellent, really. I completely adored Kimberly and her mother and admired them, knowing that, while they are fictional characters here, people like them do exist and survive in real life. Kwok based much of this story on her own life. Girl in Translation will absolutely go on my Top 10 list of the year. Please read it!

Other Reviews of Girl in Translation
Books and Movies
Literary Life
Beth's Book Nook
Booking Mama
Word Lily
Reading Extravaganza
Big WoWo
Dogberry Pages

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: When My Name Was Keoko

"If a war lasts long enough, is it possible that people would completely forget the idea of beauty? That they'd only be able to do what they needed to survive and would no longer remember how to make and enjoy beautiful things?"

When My Name Was Keoko is a young adult novel by Linda Sue Park about a Korean family in Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II, told in the alternating voices of 10-year-old Sun-hee and 13-year-old Tae-yul. Korea has long been under Japanese rule when this novel begins, but a new order from the fascist regime seeks to strip them of their last bit of Korean identity: all Koreans must take new Japanese names. Already the people have been forced to give up their cultural symbols, language, and traditions. Sun-hee becomes Keoko and Tae-yul becomes Nobuo, but they remain fiercely Korean in their hearts.

What the siblings suspect and soon realize with both happiness and anxiety is that their beloved Uncle is a leader in the resistance movement. Although they are frightened of the repercussions, Sun-hee and Tae-yul do what they can do help Uncle and eventually Tae-yul risks his life for Korea.

This was a beautiful book. I had trouble sometimes with the alternating voices of Sun-hee and Tae-yul, but that was my own lack of concentration. The chapters are clearly labeled. The story is a powerful one, and I regret that I didn't use this book last year when teaching a literature circle on various experiences in World War II. I highly recommend this not only to the 10-14 year old "suggested reading audience," but to adult readers, as well. There is also a great bibliography at the end that includes several more young adult books about the Korean experience in WW2.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

In the creative writing class that I teach for middle schoolers, we have been discussing what makes a good character. The kids have all kinds of insights on this. Twelve and 13-year-olds are brutally honest. One young lady said that she will stop reading a book if she doesn't like the name of the character. Several others agreed.

Now while I won't go so far as to drop a book just because I don't like a character's name, I have to admit that this does bother me tremendously. All that to say, Joshilyn Jackson's book The Girl Who Stopped Swimming had one of those names: Thalia.

I know. I'm so petty, but that name just does something icky to me. Fortunately, Thalia's sister, the main character, has a name that I think is one of the most beautiful: Laurel. My daughter. So here's my own weird twist on the book. I hate the name Thalia, and I love the name Laurel, but neither name fit the characters in the book. For me.

So what does all this have to do with the actual novel itself? Well, when things like that are off, the whole book is off. For me. The story goes that Laurel is led by a ghost to find a girl's dead body in her swimming pool. The girl turns out to be her daughter's best friend, and then the hunt begins: why did the girl drown? What was she doing in their backyard at midnight?

While she investigates the drowning, Laurel has to call in her estranged sister, Thalia, for help. Thalia, an actress married to a gay man, constantly criticizes Laurel because she lives in an affluent community. Somehow this ties into their mother's people coming from the trailer park. That whole subplot was disjointed and squeezed into the story. I've read reviews that indicate this is a powerful novel about poverty, but I just wasn't feeling that. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina? Now that's a book about abject poverty in the South.

It wasn't a terrible book. I read it in about a day; it was riveting in spite of its flaws. But honestly, I was reading for plot, and in the end, I kinda went, "huh?"

I've read two other Joshilyn Jackson books and enjoyed them. In my review of Gods in Alabama I said, "Jackson does a fantastic job of capturing the quirkiness of the south without falling into stereotypes." (I could not say the same about The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.) My review of Between, Georgia, probably sums up what I'd say for The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: "I can't say I'd rush out and tell my friends, 'You must read this novel!' but it was a good filler between other novels."

Other Reviews of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

A Bookworm's World
Bermudaonion's Weblog
Blue Archipelago Reviews

Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."

I was introduced to Sherman Alexie's poetry years ago in graduate school and thought he was amazing. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is his semi-autobiographical novel, written for young adults but totally loved by this older adult. (As far as that goes, I wouldn't recommend this to a very young adult. Lots of language, etc.)

This is the story of Junior, a genius with multiple medical problems born to heavy-drinking, impoverished parents on an Indian reservation. He is rejected everywhere he goes: by the rez community because of his weird looks and brains, and by the white community outside the reservation because he's, well, an Indian. Recognizing Junior's genius, his math teacher persuades him to go to Rearden, the all-white school outside of the reservation. Junior figures that he doesn't have anything to lose, so he agrees.

The next several years become a struggle of Junior trying to get to school every day (it's 22 miles away, and his father is rarely sober and his truck rarely works) and then surviving in school. Initially he is bullied and ostracized at Rearden and even more rejected at the Rez, where he is branded as a traitor. But with a tremendous sense of humor and the ability to find superhuman emotional strength and determination, Junior knocks down one obstacle after another.

Alexie is a the kind of author that had me laughing one minute and then tearing up at the next. Junior's life is something the vast majority of us can't possibly imagine, but he doesn't ask for pity—he's just telling it like it is. We know Junior immediately. Alexie is that good at immersing us in his world and allowing us to be in his head. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons sprinkled throughout the book add to that knowing of him.

I can't recommend this book enough. It will absolutely go on my Top 10 list of favorites for this year.

Some Other Reviews
The Book Smugglers: "A triumph in storytelling, filled with heartbreak but also so much warmth and I can’t recommend it enough."
Ramblings of a Writer: "The issues were treated with finesse, and issues of family, the individual and belonging added layers of wow-awesome-amazingness to this book."
The Book Lady's Blog: "What sets this book apart from the YA lit masses is that the author manages to tell a great story and explore themes about identity and culture that many authors shy away from."
Maw Books Blog: "teaches us not to be limited by our circumstances."
Brown Girl BookSpeaks: " Junior's quirky persona while coping with life and pursuing a permanent way off the rez through education provides a hopeful and uplifting tale for young people."