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Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

The Scaffold for My A to Z Favorite Books Series

I must admit I lied, an act of exclusion not intention. Of necessity for restraint not extravagance. These are not my favorite twenty-six books I’ve ever read – only the favorite for each letter of the alphabet. Even that was a miserable choice for nearly every letter. I had to leave out so many incredible books screaming, “Pick me. Me! You know you love me best.” Look at the possible choices just for the letter A:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
The Alexandria Quartet (4 novels) by Lawrence Durrell
All Other Nights by Dara Horn
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (This was the book I selected.)
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
Atonement by Eon McEwan

How could I write about All the Light We Cannot See but leave out All Other Nights, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Atonement or the other eight books? Only by wringing my hands and making promises in the dark, sometimes picking petals off the daisy, did I come to conclusions. In some cases, I had to choose a favorite book for a particular letter though I really adore another book more than the one for the letter for which I was writing. Anointing a single child. Medieval torture. The aching limitations of the series. The books left out cry to me in my dreams, “How could you do this to me?” Love is a fickle entity. I had to choose one, only one book for each letter, but still, I love all of you equally.

How did I even come to have a selection of titles from which to choose?

About ten years ago I began to keep a list of books I’d read, sometimes writing a very brief review. I’ve added titles read long ago as I remember them. The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, a pseudonym for a group of writers, is the very first book I ever read by myself when I was five, but this book only recently got onto my list. Close to a thousand mostly fiction books read since 1953, the earliest date I can remember reading books for pleasure or elucidation. It remains an organizational mess – not in alphabetical order by title or author, not even organized by the year read. Kids’ books are mixed in as well as non-fiction which I chose not to include for possible review, nor biography or autobiography, philosophy, religious exegeses, history, science, technology, poetry, short story collections, or Shakespeare’s plays, almost none of which are even on the list. I’ve not included all the books read in support of my career as an art teacher: how to teach, how to teach art, and art history, production methods, materials, and techniques, and commentary. Also not on the list are the dozens (hundreds?) of textbooks pored over for college, and any books I still don’t remember. (OK, Captain Obvious, go away now.) This year I got a bit smarter and created a page just for 2017. I’m not a marathon reader by any means, and the list of books I’d like to read is at least another thousand.

So, picking a favorite for each letter posed a challenge. I didn’t want more than one book per author, nor to lean too heavily on any one genre, or select more female than male writers. Nor should only the classics or only recent books be considered. I selected the entire series before I began to write about Doerr’s book in order to keep my pen out of those quagmires. Didn’t mean I didn’t change my mind – I did that too, for about every letter as its publication date approached.

My original idea was only to choose adult books but if you’ve followed the series, you know I didn’t stick with that plan. Some children’s books are too exceptional and memorable to be ignored. Thus Max made his bow in Where the Wild Things Are, right after I’d sent my beloved copy to my youngest grandchildren in Northern California.

These are books that pulled me between their covers and held on to my heart and mind, sometimes making me laugh out loud in awkward places or leaving me in tears. Most of them I’ve read more than once, some as many as six times (imagine how long my list would be had I not done that) but many I haven’t read within the last year or so. Which meant I had to skim the book, most of them fortunately still on my shelves. But I’m not a speed reader and that’s why there are gaps of more than a week between some of the posts. I read “out loud in my head,” usually in voices, and that takes time.

As I worked through the alphabet my focus changed. From writing reviews of great books I wanted people to read, I wrote personal stories about why each book meant so much to me. They influenced other book choices, or how I write, or what I think about the world, or compelled me to dream bigger, try harder, research deeper, write more. There are hundreds of thousands of reviews on the Internet but my series reveals at least twenty-six gherkins of information about me.

I gave up quoting my favorite line because that became another nearly impossible choice. Most of my books are flagged with dozens of sticky notes, indicating a passage I wanted to remember. When I started copying ten or twelve sentences, I got close to crossing the acceptable legal line of limited exposure of another writer’s work. I stopped including them at all.

Toward the end of the alphabet I got creative, as you’ve probably noted. Consider X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember – that one was a mighty undertaking, demanding a return to my earliest childhood memories, but it might be the post in this series for which I’m most proud.

You, my readers, have graciously offered your own favorite titles for various letters, and I’m so thankful for your interest and recommendations. I hope you’ll consider a book or two from my list for something to read over the next year. When you open to the first page, tell them their old friend Shari sent you.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for A to Z:
Perhaps another 300 books I couldn’t write about, my other favorite favorites.

 

Painting “Interesting Story” by Laura Muntz Lyall, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Z is for Zorba the Greek

Like several books on this A to Z list, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis while in college, though it wasn’t for a class. A bunch of friends were reading the book (I think some for a college course,) and I read it so I could participate in the exciting conversations. This was during the early 1970’s. When you’re young, in college, in love (or you wish/think you are,) maybe a bit inebriated (sometimes, only sometimes,) out of your parents’ house (finally,) full of vigor, fueled with passion, inspired by the radical and classic ideas that have made the world spin, and free to experiment (‘cause, you know, you’re out of your parents’ house,) Zorba is the most exciting background music you can imagine. It remains one of the most iconic books of all time, but today’s college kids might be rallied by some other title. (Would love you to tell me.)

Zorba the man is as much a swashbuckling figure as Captain Jack Sparrow (though I find Zorba fully dimensional and Sparrow a brittle prop for outlandish makeup.) And that’s what we talked about, sitting on the floor of someone’s apartment (none of us had furniture, but we had energy) and arguing about what the book meant to us and how or if we should emulate Zorba’s attitude about life. Such zest the man had, and knowing Kazantzakis had based his character on a true-life friend made the book that much more appealing. Because frankly, despite our youthful dreams and noble ambitions, none of us had yet made anything of our lives, and we felt like the world was passing us by without hearing our squeaks and pitches. But we all had tests the next day and papers due at the end of the week. Young women or young men, we wanted to be like Zorba, grabbing life by the fistful, singing, dancing, drinking (and having sex) till we dropped, obligations be damned.

The story is narrated by a younger man, a reserved scholar out to mine for lignite on Crete in 1915 or so. Zorba hires on to be the manager, cook, and occasional musician. We never learn the name of the narrator. While many have suggested it is Kazantzakis himself, I think he represents the staid, unheralded Everyman, the backbone of society who works hard to pay the bills and feed the kids. Boring perhaps but dependable. Except that this narrator is so aloof about life that there’s no family at all, just a man who reads, thinks, contemplates religion and philosophy (the Buddhist void,) and decides to manage a lignite mine in order to promote the right of the workers. The polar opposite of Zorba who dances, drinks, labors, sings, ruts like a bull, and advises against getting close to the miners. And submerges his past with flamboyant braggadocio or the plaintive strings of his santuri.

Adventure after adventure, Zorba and the narrator engage in this partnership with each other and with the citizens of Crete. What the narrator cannot learn from his books, he learns from Zorba, often an antagonistic view. At the end is the inevitable: the deaths of the most charismatic people. Only the music endures.

Zorba was the perfect model for students in the seventies. We were the free love generation, the ones who protested the Vietnam War. We argued the value of everything, and we sampled drugs (some kids) the way you might try appetizers. Seen through the lens of my friends, Zorba’s lifestyle was the zenith of exuberance. Yet all of us were students, most working our way through college, many actively and frequently protesting the war. Deciding my life was my responsibility, that my choices had to be my own, I’d already left home. I realized it was egregiously unjust to draft boys not old enough to vote, most of them too poor to be excused for service by attending college. (Young men like the one I would shortly begin a relationship with, eventually to marry.) So I gave up a semester of college to campaign to pass the twenty-sixth amendment which lowered the voting age to eighteen, giving the youngest draftees a chance to vote.

At a time when eating twice a day was all I could afford, it was not insignificant to give up that semester, extending my work at minimum wage jobs and delaying my graduation. I lived full throttle the way Zorba did, the way many of my friends did, but we were also like the young and idealistic narrator. We studied hard, we worked for social justice and democracy, we weighed options, we believed in peace, and we protested for the common man, for civil rights, and for ideals of conscience.

Charismatic, mesmerizing, towering, magnetic, alluring, tragic, life lived fully and in the moment. Or life lived with poetry on one’s tongue, cerebral and distant, the scholar in the ivory tower. The ancient conundrum, the great paradox: individual versus community, instinct versus intellect.

Ah, youth. Ah, Zorba the Greek.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Z fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for Z:

The Zigzag Kid by David Grossman

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon and Schuster

 

Y is for The Yearling

 

*Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else. We had the first color TV in our neighborhood, a modern wonder that everyone came to watch, me gloating over the regal status of our family. A tiny in-ground swimming pool in our backyard cooled us each afternoon while everyone else traipsed to community pools to escape New Jersey’s blistering summers. I threatened all my limbs racing a bike over the uneven landscape of sidewalk slates erupted by the roots of saplings planted fifty years earlier, now grown to jungle size. My childhood also included an excess of torment, from events I won’t describe or attribute.

At night when my jelly jar beamed with lightning bugs signaling for release, when the attic creaked its rotted beams and Jack Parr entertained adult viewers with his suave, nasal humor on late night TV, I lay in bed with a book and entered worlds more fierce and tragic, heroic and dangerous, romantic and exotic than my own. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Borrowers, Heidi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twenty-One Balloons, A Little Princess, The Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Railway Children – all these and more captivated me and kept me up hours past bedtime. They gave me insight to the difficult lives of others. They gave me courage, come morning, to tackle another day. One book was so special I bought a copy for my grandson years before he could read it.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about Jody, a youngster who lives in the Florida back country with his parents and his orphaned pet fawn, Flag. Life is harsh and hard scrabble shortly after the end of the Civil War. Every grain of corn is a hedge between mere hunger and flat out starvation, every encounter with nature a potential threat to existence, every neighbor an adversary with their own desperate circumstances to overcome. Jody adores his indulgent pa, his remote ma, his sensitive, crippled friend, and Flag. Flag grows up to become a healthy, ravenous buck and a threat to the family’s tenuous grasp on sufficient sustenance for the following year, forcing Jody to make an unthinkable decision. He must sacrifice the thing he loves most to save his family, his first act of manhood.

The Yearling clutched at my heart like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least a hundred pages. Rawlings believed I could read a book this long, that I had the stamina to maintain attention for a sustained period. She trusted that I had the intelligence to keep tabs on a large cast of characters, some so ingratiating I still love them, some despicable, all of them original and unforgettable. She engaged me with a complex plot and a sense of language so identifiable that I learned to speak nineteenth century Floridian with the best of the swamp dwellers.

More than that, Rawlings threw me a life raft. All the stories I’d read and loved told tales of people, usually children, surviving unlikely odds, but The Yearling treated me like an adult. (In fact, she wrote a book. It has come to be considered a young adult book.) Her dollar words and profound ideas made me think about the issues that motivate people to endure the impossible. The story gave me insight into how to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes violent swamp of my childhood. It showed me a way to identify the currents beneath my own strange family issues and swim to the surface. I couldn’t understand Jody’s ma, and I couldn’t understand my own mother. And the book made me want to write like Rawlings.

What did a New Jersey kid know about the wilds of the Louisiana or Florida swamps, the vastness of the American prairie, or even the poverty of the downtown Trenton Black neighborhoods? Not much. Didn’t stop me from writing about them. My stories became populated with folks who had Southern drawls or Western twangs and lived in foul places built more of imagination than any reference to real locales. What did an eleven-year-old know about restrictive social impositions on the other side of town that made it impossible for a man to care for his family or for a woman to walk downtown proudly? Hardly a thing. Didn’t stop me from creating them. My characters faced unjust tribulations and resolved them with courage and invention even if the events were outrageous and the outcomes impossible. I didn’t even flinch from occasionally letting a protagonist die. Melodrama was my forte.

My teachers encouraged me, if only because I used lots of adverbs and adjectives and fashioned strange names for my characters. I won a few school awards and fleeting acknowledgement. My parents applauded my effort though I’m pretty sure they never read anything I wrote.

No matter. In the far dark corner of my room sat the spirit of a little woman with a stern face who waited patiently while I put down my stories in longhand. My hero, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, prodded me to write. Decades ago and long interrupted in my adulthood but now restarted, I wrote stories. I wrote first for children, stories about overcoming injustice and facing down heartache. Now I write for adults, stories about the complex relationships between people against the background of momentous historical events. They’re about people who confront savage or mysterious circumstances and overcome personal failure to find a way to triumph. It’s what happened to Jody. I try to engage readers as much as Rawlings engaged me. I hope that people find solace in my stories for what can’t be described or attributed in their lives.

The Yearling won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

What childhood book stays with you?

I look forward to learning about your favorite Y fiction books.

*Note: This article was first published (with slight differences) on Ink Flare in 2013. Though I intended to assign a different book review to Y, The Yearling has had such major impact on my life as a person and a writer, that I realized this is the only book that would reflect my passion for storytelling.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for Y:

The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (series) by Rebecca Wells

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Charles Scribner’s Sons

 

 

X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember

When I was about ten, early 1958, my parents took us to New York City to see the United Nations. Living in Trenton, New Jersey, we were only a few hours’ drive from the Big Apple, but in reality we were a continent removed. Trenton, though it was the capitol of NJ, was small town compared to cosmopolitan NYC. After a tour of the building, (no meeting in session that day) we three kids each got to pick a souvenir from the gift shop. I chose a kid’s book of short stories, and it’s this book I want to honor as my choice for the letter X.

I can no longer recall the title or author, or even if it was written by one person or several. The stories were intended to relate the good work of UN programs and workers all over the world: the unnamed, unsung heroes who brought modernity to cultures lost in the inefficiency of past centuries, health to tribes hampered by eradicable illnesses and looked after by primitive medicine men, and a sense of the connections that the symbol of world unity promised everyone. I will never forget a few of the stories, especially the one I want to tell you about here.

Less than six months after the visit, my parents moved us to Hawaii where we lived for two years before returning to the mainland on my thirteenth birthday. This was our second inhabitance of O’ahu, the first being when I was nearing the age of four. My dad had graduated in 1952 from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in Philadelphia, where I’d been born. He joined the army and did his first year of medical residency at Tripler Army Medical Center on the mountainous slopes of the Moanalua Ridge. We lived on base housing. It’s comical to call the units “housing.” In the very early 1900’s, they’d been the hospital wards at Fort Shafter, later converted to physician and officer housing when the iconic coral pink edifice was built around 1944. By the time we moved in, my mom was uncomfortably pregnant and unbearably lonely for her family, and the tiny row of converted quarters were nearly unlivable.

Tripler was and remains the largest Army medical facility in the region, serving Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and various other locations in the Pacific Rim and Asia. It’s important to understand that Hawaii was a Petri dish of cultures that converged and mingled from China, Japan, Philippines, and the US mainland, among others. Everyone brought their native diseases along with their luggage and aging grandparents. In addition, Hawaii is tropical, hot and wet, a fertile nursery for bugs, viruses, and germs, pervasive, exotic, and sometimes fatal. My parents made certain that the three of us were inoculated against smallpox, a genuine threat then, before we left Philadelphia. It kept me safe from smallpox.

They couldn’t vaccinate me against my idiotic four-year-old self.

The story I most remember from the UN book tells about an African village where the natives lived in grass huts and suffered from all kinds of illnesses, many borne by bugs. Malaria, widespread because of Anopheles mosquitoes prevalent in many parts of Africa, was of greatest concern, though I don’t know if the disease was mentioned in the story. It was and is a terrible disease, one that causes raging high fevers, vomiting, brutal headaches, long term physical debilitation, coma, even death, especially to young children.

The UN team entered one tiny hamlet and demanded, nicely of course, that every villager present himself to be doused with a miracle spray that would kill any bug making them ill. Everyone showed up and was sprayed with the wonder insecticide: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT, as you’ve probably guessed. Yep, the toxic pollutant that eventually wiped out or endangered many species, is absorbed into the soil, and may be responsible for carcinogenic illnesses in humans. Then the team went hut to hut and sprayed the interiors and all belongings of each. At one hut, a nervous woman tried to prevent the team from entering. When they did, they spotted a bundle of rags, unwrapped it, and discovered her newborn child. She didn’t want her baby sprayed. Smiling, they insisted, and pulled the infant from its swaddling, sprayed its entire body, and returned the baby to mother’s arms. At ten, I considered it a fabulous conclusion. Ignorant, uneducated mother’s baby was now safe from bad bugs. God knows, I hate bugs.

The first time we lived on O’ahu in the ramshackle base housing, (1952 – ‘53) my mom figured I was relatively safe and let me have the run of the area around the houses, as did all the other children. Imagine, two rows of cardboard-thin buildings facing each other across a swath of lush lawn, lantana, Poinciana, hibiscus, plumeria, coconut, and palm trees, and dozens of kids running all over. All the moms looked out for all the kids – sort of. No one really stood watch as it wasn’t necessary. We ran up and down the gardens all day, getting home before dark every evening. Nothing bad ever happened to any of us.

Except that I started coughing. A lot. A deep persistent cough I couldn’t control no matter how often my parents yelled at me. I was a bad advertisement for a doctor. Finally, suspecting tuberculosis, dad and another physician sneaked me into Tripler’s laboratory at midnight, (completely illegal entry) drew my blood, and looked at it under a microscope. No tubercular bugs, thank God, so they went back to telling me to stop coughing. No one knew why I coughed so much, but I knew I couldn’t stop the tickle, the itch, the discomfort that caused me to choke until I coughed. The year after we left Hawaii, we moved to army housing in Enterprise, Alabama. I was five now and kindergarten delayed because I suffered from a strange illness that made me cough and feel exhausted all the time. I was an adult, married and living in California with two sons before my dad told me I’d had mononucleosis that year.

Decades later I came across the UN book and reread it in an afternoon, paying special attention to the story about the African woman and her baby who got sprayed with DDT. And I remembered something long forgotten till then.

In Hawaii in 1952 and ‘53, a small truck came around the base housing neighborhood once a week, driving up the adjacent street, and emitting a sweetish smelling spray from its backside. We kids were fascinated by that truck. We ran through its rear mist, sniffing the spray, lost in its peculiar thick fog, unable to see our own hands much less the other kids. If an adult had been watching, they might not have seen us either. Maybe as many as twenty-five times during that year, I chased the truck, laughing and breathing in DDT.

Rachel Carson, the brilliant, tenacious, observant naturalist, wrote of the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, published in 1962. The same toxic chemical identified by Rachel Carson as so very dangerous to the environment, to animals, and to people that she advocated persuasively for it to be banned. We’d moved to Hawaii for the second time in 1959, (dad was no longer in the military, he just wanted to live in paradise,) then moved to California in 1961. Whatever damage was done to our young family in 1952 and ‘53, was not repeated during our second sojourn.

I’ve since suffered bronchitis innumerable times and serious bouts of pneumonia approximately ten or eleven times. I’ve had both pneumonia shots and still caught a nasty case of it a day after getting one of them.

Chemical pesticides are dangerous to earth and living things – we know this now. The few who knew early about the dangers of DDT were muffled or ignored. All those illnesses it tried to eradicate were/are also extremely dangerous. I’ve since lost the book, probably forever, but it is my choice for the letter X, representing the unknown factor.

 

NOTE: I read Silent Spring in the 1970’s. Since the book was published and DDT ultimately banned, malaria increased in enormous numbers around the globe but especially in third world countries where other medical help was not easily available. Millions of people suffered and died from malaria. It’s been disputed that DDT caused the numerous deaths from all kinds of cancers that Rachel Carson claimed, and the chemical has since been reinstated. I am neither scientist nor researcher. Readers should consult those who are expert in the field for accurate information. My purpose in writing this review of a non-book was to show my actual experience with DDT and to suggest a warning. Not everything is what appears on its surface, and most new solutions to any kind of problem also generate unexpected consequences. X does indeed represent the unknown factor.

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite X fiction books.

I offer no other books as contenders for X.

 

United Nations image courtesy: Google images and Wikimedia Commons; photo of Sharon Bonin, age 4, courtesy Bonin Family archives

 

 

W is for Where the Wild Things Are

When our oldest son was nearly four and I was well on my way to delivering a baby of unknown gender, my husband and I wandered into a bookstore in the nearby mall. Back then bookstores were not mega edifices, I’d never heard of Maurice Sendak, and the space allotted for picture books was a single half-shelf near the floor. Our budget was too tight for even one book. Still, Where the Wild Things Are stood out for the cover image of a chubby monster with human feet dozing near an ocean. That was my kid, a brilliant, adorable boy who drove me nuts sometimes.

We purchased the book knowing we’d do without the few extras that marked our thin-wallet lifestyle. When it comes to your kid, you suck in a bit to give what you know he should have. I had very few toys as a child, but I had books, and my kids would have books. Still, why choose this picture book to represent my all-time favorite W book when the list at the bottom of this post notes some of the most incredible stories ever written?

It has something to do with childhood, something to do with art, and something to do with the continuing evolvement of human beings.

We all begin as wild things, our dividing first cells connected to the atoms that indicate some kind of life, then developing into homo sapiens. As Newborn Progeny announces his presence with wails and flailing fists, we parent-adults sprint to satisfy his needs – food, comfort, a safe place to sleep – eventually understanding we are giving in to outrageous demands. Food, comfort, a safe place to sleep, entertainment on demand, the center of attention all the time, and everything now, now, now. We parent-adults are exhausted, grumpy, and lacking substantial nourishment, but we still adore the little moppet until we see that he isn’t always so cute and he can take care of some of his own needs, dammit.

There he is, selfish Max in his wolf suit, a wild child who stomps to his bedroom, soon overrun by a forest of Amazonian dimensions. A boat sails by and picks him up to deliver him to the place where the wild things are. Where he belongs, dammit. Who of us does not remember roaring their terrible roars at the injustice of rules, gnashing their terrible teeth when asked to apologize for bad behavior, rolling their terrible eyes at parental expectations, and showing their terrible claws in defense of all things Child? Max may have been only four or five, but I’m certain his terrible attitude continued throughout his teenage years. My sons’ did, as did mine a hundred years before.

Where the Wild Things Are is not about the innocence of babyhood or the curiosity of toddler years. It’s about the primal non-compliance of every growing child who says, “No, I don’t want to, you’re not the boss of me, you can’t make me, I won’t.” And turns his back on you. Every parent (and every teacher) knows this kid: the girl who throws a temper tantrum until she nearly stops breathing, the boy who flings all his toys onto the floor, the child who tears the heads off dolls.

Max partakes of a “wild rumpus,” an activity akin to play. He and the monsters hang from trees and strut in a parade. Best of all, he finds a safe and peaceful way to vent his fury – he retreats into his imagination where he is king of the wild things, until he becomes weary with his rebellion and returns home. Consequences are painless and fleeting, a natural outcome of letting a tantrum deflate on its own, showing the way a child should be able to deal with his demons, if the adults are understanding. The end of the time out, a renewed chance to win favor with his mom. After all, Max is only five.

Sendak’s illustrations show Max as the captain of the ship that sails to the land of the wild things, the monsters themselves featuring huge claws, bulbous eyes, and sharp fangs. They’re not really terrifying but more like a kid’s stuffed animal with a few pointy parts added. Pictures are buffed until soft, rendered with delicate pen and ink lines over pale watercolor washes. They don’t stab you in the eyes – they sidle up to you, letting you linger. The layout of the book lends to its brilliance. Several pages show double-paged illustrations with no words, and the very last page reads simply, “and it was still hot,” with no image at all.

As an art teacher, the story of Max and the wild things provided inspiration for the creation of hundreds of wild monsters, all manner of paintings and collages crafted by my students. I encouraged them to explore every abominable or fantastic thing they could think of. And they did. Because all kids need an outlet for the things without names or borders that rage inside them. Because they do, at times. And that’s what Maurice Sendak understood. We are not perfect as parents, teachers, adults, and not when we were kids either. We were and still are full of fears of the unknown, ire at what seems unfair, confusion over what we cannot grasp. Life is not just, and all we want to do is hang from the trees and make mischief.

We know this wild little one, whether big or small, who wants someone to hug him no matter what. Someone to listen to his outrageous complaints, to hear his ridiculous excuses, to tell him it will be alright. Someone to keep supper hot until the spell of rage is over, the wolf suit lies discarded on the floor, and the child has completed the journey home.

Let me give you a hug, Max, my student, my child, my son. I will love you forever, “back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day,” as long as it takes, as much as you need me. It’s what we parents (and teachers) do – we wait it out until it’s spent.

Maurice Sendak understood the great paradox of childhood: beneath the imploring eyes, between the small shoulders, a child of enormous strength and righteous indignation must learn to grow into his power with grace. But it takes a very long time and a whole lot of failure and a gigantic amount of patience before the monster becomes human. As an art teacher, eager to hang my students’ monsters on the wall. And as a parent, waiting to comfort my child at the end of a very arduous journey.

I still marvel at Sendak’s economically worded story, a skill I have yet to master. He describes the psychological territory of a child in less than four hundred words. After reading Wild Things to my sons and my older grandchildren hundreds of times, I sent my copy to my two younger grandchildren for many more years of enjoyment.

Where the Wild Things Are was written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It won the 1964 Caldecott Award for “the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year.” It remains one of the most requested and beloved books ever. Miss you, Maurice. Love you always, Max, Noah, Ethan, and our four Grands. Dinner is waiting – and it’s still hot.

I look forward to learning about your favorite W fiction books.

Other books that were serious contenders for W:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Watership Down by Richard Adams
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
White Oleander by Janet Fitch,
The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
The World to Come by Dara Horn
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Row Publishers

V is for The Valley of Amazement

Like so many kids, I was sure I lived in the home of strangers, people who’d stolen me out of my royal crib and thrust their last name upon me. To wash dishes. To mind the younger kids. To iron laundry. To be quiet in the presence of others. Life would be wonderful when my true parents finally claimed me and set me free. My dolls acted out my dilemma, standing in for my sojourn among foreigners, risking reputation and security in tenacious pursuit of true identity. If you are female, you are nodding your head, maybe with a wry smile. If you are male, you scratch your head a few times, be quiet in the presence of others? So? But young men bristle under their own mistreatment. Send us to the corner once, the punishment seethes in our marrow forever.

So it was no surprise that The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan touched my childhood longing to be reunited with my long lost family. It’s just as much a fabricated story as the one I wove about myself, except that Tan is a much better writer. I’ve read all of her novels, each evocative of other locales, other cultures, reverberations of the relationships that define our human limitations and echo our noble aspirations.

Violet, of the phoenix eyes, is the American daughter of the madam of Hidden Jade Path, an exclusive house of courtesans in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. In other words, she is born in a whorehouse but in a prestigious part of town, one that caters to wealthy Americans and powerful Chinese. No, my young life was not so bad, and I can barely imagine a person born to be abused in such fashion, yet I know how much Tan researches history for her books. An ember smolders in the ash.

I’d already read In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant and Geisha by Arthur Golden, both about women in sexual service. Women in bondage to male authority is not an unusual topic, and if not the primary idea it is often a major component of stories. Still, each book exposes something unexpected – debasing and maddening – about how half the world’s population is forced to endure in order to survive. One would think I’d be a bit inured. Maybe it’s the estrogen in me screaming, “Enough.”

Young Violet’s rebellious and curious nature finds her spying on those who frame sex as an alluring and mysterious contract between men of high station and women of unique talents. Violet knows she is part orphan so she also spies on her mother, trying to ascertain who her father is. She learns there is a brother living in America, a child her mother loves far more. She is left behind when her mother escapes back to the States as Chinese rebellion against the imperial reign looms. She’s then sold to a competitor’s bordello where she is forced into a life of prostitution. She falls in love with an impoverished man she cannot marry, as did her mother years before. In the cruelest turn, she becomes pregnant with a child she cannot keep, and her baby girl is taken from her.

Violet is tutored about dramatic (and bizarre) lessons on how to advertise one’s virginity to be sold to the highest bidder, then how to perform sexual moves to ensure the most male pleasure – and guarantee return liaisons. Her instructor, Magic Gourd, advises Violet on the professional name by which she’ll be known as a courtesan – A Waterfall Dream. “We can come up with the exact meaning later when decide who you really are,” One after another, each experience is more vulgar and humiliating, acts of betrayal, manipulation, and violence. Confronted with dire circumstances, Violet survives, learning to use men as much as they use her. Yet always she longs for love, family, identity, and her daughter.

Toward the end of the story, we again meet Lulu Mintern, Violet’s mother, and discover the history of the woman whose flight for independence wrought the worst kind of confinement – estrangement from her daughter. The story of The Valley of Amazement thus comes full circle, a reflection in the daughter and granddaughter of the grandmother, one generation impacting the next. The title of the book is taken from a painting created by the artist whom Lulu loved, the motivation for her to go to China as a lovelorn teenager. The image haunts some viewers, promises others, depicting illusion or reality depending on what one needs to see.

Amy Tan’s books explore identity and mother-daughter relationships. Eventually I realized I was not a stolen princess consigned to a dreggy life; I really am the ordinary daughter of ordinary people. But I’ve struggled all my life with my relationship with my mother, always needing more love and understanding than she could give. It isn’t easy to read a book where women are a negotiable commodity for a particular attribute of their bodies. China is not unique in forcing women and young girls to labor on their backs, then or now. Amazement divulges the complexity and commonality of human estrangement in a way that is both intimate and universal. My problems are my own, issues I’ll have to resolve, and I am damn lucky that I never faced the brutality of Violet and Lulu’s lives. But they’re also like those of everyone else who struggles to find a way to get along. I’ve come to terms with myself, my family, my mother, not because of Tan’s stories, but because I grew up. Not satisfaction, but a status I can accept.

Maybe it’s the estrogen in me screaming, “Don’t you dare. I know who I am.”

I look forward to learning about your favorite V fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for V:

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins Publishers

 

U is for The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is considered the Czech writer’s masterpiece. He is regarded as one of the world’s most important authors, having won numerous awards, commendations, international acclaim, and often short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Being is one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever read. In fact, I couldn’t get through it the first two times I tried, so you’d be right if you’re questioning whether this is actually my favorite U book. I’m glad I finally completed it but it was a challenge from beginning to end.

I don’t think it’s possible to read Being without knowing something of the background of Kundera’s life and the history of Czechoslovakia. Kundera was born in Brno in 1929 and lived much of his adult life in Prague. The book reflects some of the events of his life. In fact, all of his books except for the very last describe life in Czechoslovakia. I’m no expert on this history, and what I do know I gleaned from the Internet and a bit of awareness of world issues as they happened.

Kundera’s first political association was with the Communist party but he eventually gave it up in favor of championing human rights, Czech political freedom, and support of the arts. He was one of many intellectuals who participated in the Prague Spring in 1968 in opposition to the Soviet invasion and takeover of his country. They banned his books. They reduced many of the intelligentsia and artistic community to second class citizenry and encouraged them to leave the country. Kundera and his wife emigrated to France where he taught at university, continued to write, and eventually became a French citizen. All of this is loosely exposed in Being, especially in the character of Tomas, Kundera’s alter ego.

The book begins with a lengthy discussion of human existence as a challenge between positive lightness, without emotional burden, and negative heaviness, requiring eternal return. Since we only get one life, we have no basis for comparison to determine which quality reflects life more accurately.* Many people take refuge in the aesthetic kitsch of religion or other distracting and sentimental activities to escape from Soviet oppression, a situation the author found deplorable and expressed within the viewpoints of characters. Kundera’s question about lightness versus heaviness is at the heart of living under a totalitarian government that destroyed the very nature of his country. Were I to be asked, I find the novel loaded with author intrusion, an absolute no-no according to modern writing standards (and many readers’ tastes.)

Ordinary writing rules don’t count under such circumstances. Throughout the book, philosophical arguments take more space than the activities of the characters. Most of the action revolves around their sexual relationships and betrayals, a kind of carousel of bed hopping, party attendance, and café sitting. Kundera devotes pages to definitions of words that later impact the characters. Words like “woman,” “cemetery,” and “the beauty of New York” create an internal dictionary of important ideas. Yeah, let’s you or I try that tactic in our novels and see how well it’s accepted by editors or readers.

Tomas, the primary character, is a brilliant surgeon who questions the quality and meaning of his life. He engages in an astonishing number of throwaway sexual liaisons, even while claiming to love only his wife, Tereza. At first a waitress escaping her vulgar mother, Tereza becomes a capable photo-journalist. She is always emotionally dependent on Tomas to the point that she is sickened and feels betrayed by his sexual exploits.

Tomas’ most important other sexual partner is Sabina, a talented painter and free spirit who even wins over Tereza. Sabina stays true to her values and eventually settles in America where she disavows her homeland and her past. The final significant character is Franz who becomes Sabina’s other lover. Franz lives a tragic life and dies abroad though he is essentially a kind person who recognizes his mistakes.

All four characters flee Czechoslovakia, though Tomas and Teresa return. Their lives take a difficult turn under the Communist occupation which demands slavish obeisance to party lines. They are forced to give up their previous professional identities. Their skills are wasted doing menial jobs, yet they accept this reduction in their status.

My most favorite character (actually, the only character I like) is the smiling dog, Kerenin. Tereza walks Kerenin every day to get a bun which he carries home in his mouth and does not eat until he roughhouses with Tomas. Though we know long before the end of the book that Tomas and Tereza die together in a car accident, for which no details are provided, it is Kerenin’s illness, death, and funeral that take up the final passages of the book. Other than anger at the heartlessness of the Soviet regime, only this section made me feel an emotional response to anything in the story.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a serious and important work for its depiction of the conflict of loyalty when one’s beloved country is invaded by an oppressive regime. It portrays the ways in which people tolerate and submit or flee and survive. Or rebel, as the author did. It doesn’t let you forget you’re reading a book the Communists hated. This is the distracting weight of the book for me, and it created a cleft between me and attachment to the story. As writers, we’ve learned that we must know the rules before we break them, and we better not break them unless we know how to do it so the entire story doesn’t shatter. Kundera knows how. I didn’t love this book but I will never forget it.

If you’ve read this book or any of his other works, I’d love to know your impression.

 

*My explanation of the basic conundrum of the book is poorly described here, but Kundera gives it plenty of space and makes it comprehensible.

I look forward to learning about your favorite U fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for U:

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial