Friday, July 20, 2018

Mini Reviews: A Mixed Bag Indeed

This is basically me not wanting to neglect the blog any longer, so I'm self-plagiarizing several shorter reviews I wrote on Goodreads recently. We have one schmaltzy "chapter book," a collection of literary short stories, a mid-century nonfiction classic, and a picture book. A virtual smorgasbord of literary forms. Enjoy!

Ellie's Story by W. Bruce Cameron

I read this to a small class of reluctant readers, all boys, after they'd voted on it.  The voting had been highly contentious, but by the end of the first chapter, they were all completely quiet and focused on the story.  They chuckled at the bits where Ellie's narration reveals her doggish-ness.  They shouted out predictions about what might happen.  They remained anxious about Jacob even when he was off-screen for a big chunk of the book.

The illustrations, I felt, were overly cartoonish.  Not having read A Dog's Purpose,we were simply confused by the dreams Ellie had, which I guess referred to a previous incarnation--given that there was no other mention of that concept, that could have been dropped.

A solid three stars from me, an enthusiastic five stars from my students, so we'll call it four stars.

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

These short stories were strangely compelling. Assuming the author is giving her characters
backgrounds like hers, I'm guessing she graduated from a private east coast college in 1994 after attending public school in the midwest. I graduated from a private east coast college in 1991 after attending public school in the west, so there were certain attitudes and memories that really rang a bell. A lot of her characters (and these short stories hinge on characterization more than plot) walk a fine line between likable and appalling.

Three stars, but a few stories reached towards 4 or 5.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote



Truman Capote sure can write. Much like my experience finally picking up Grapes of Wrath in my 30s, I was blown away by the economical yet forceful prose. I can't imagine how much work went into this book. The extensive research is seamlessly blended into terrific storytelling.

I am not a fan of true crime, but I've always heard this book praised, and true crime is a category in this year's Popsugar reading challenge, so I figured I'd give it a try. It was easier to read than I'd imagined; I think mainly because it doesn't make any attempts at the victims' POV during the actual crime. The 1950s language also offers a layer of distance. Not that I could be detached--it's a horrifying crime and the mental state of the murderers is fascinating and repugnant.  The only other true crime books I've read are Anne Rule's Ted Bundy story--and she's shall we say not the literary stylist Capote is--and David Cullen's Columbine--also well researched, but more ponderous in its attempt to make meaning. I find myself wondering about Capote's stake in all this--what compelled him into what must have been years of obsessive research and writing?

Highly recommended. Deserves its status. Five stars, of course.

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho

Holy sh*t.  This book packed an unexpected punch.

At my elementary school in the 1970s, there were two families of "boat people" as we rather callously called them. My husband worked with a man who remembers being boarded by pirates and robbed of all possessions during his family's ordeal. Another friend's husband isn't clear as to how old he is, and his family was going through such a long journey through various countries' refugee camps during the time he was born and his birth went unrecorded. So it's not like this story was a surprise to me. But--it becomes so visceral, told from the point of view of the child himself.

And obviously, the way it resonates for today--the sheer desperation it would take a family with children to flee their home, risking their life for the chance of survival. And it breaks my heart, the relief they had upon being rescued by the American aircraft carrier, because we are no longer that place of refuge and welcome.

Five stars, owing also to the extensive collection of actual photos and maps at the back of the book, proving this is no allegory or composite.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Draw Me Your Life: Memoirs in Graphic Novel Format

I figure I'm preaching to the choir, but two things to keep in mind:

1. Graphic Novels are a format, not a genre. Any genre can be created in the graphic novel format.
2. Graphic Novels are real books.

Now that we have that out of the way, there are some amazing cartoonists who have shared their life story in graphic novel format. There are also writers who have worked with artists to create illustrated versions of their autobiographies. Graphic Novel Memoirs (because "graphic memoirs" sounds like memoirs that include lots of sex and violence) are a strong subset of the memoir genre and of the graphic novel format. I've really enjoyed these literal glimpses into some fascinating lives.

As I did with last week's TTT, I've picked out the titles that have the fewest reviews on Goodreads, hoping to garner some more attention for these hidden treasures. Below that, I'll include a list of all the others I can think of as well. I'm also including covers for each one, so you get a sense of the art style. If a title is asterisked *** it's a particular favorite.

Ten Terrific Graphic Novel Memoirs With Fewer Than 3,500 Reviews on Goodreads

*** Rendez-Vous in Phoenix by Tony Sandoval
Sandoval focuses in this book on his attempts to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. in order to join his American girlfriend. It's a short book with almost a picture book set-up, but it's not a kids' story. 

Yo, Miss: A Graphic Look at High School by Lisa Wilde (my Goodreads review here)
Wilde teaches at an academy for at-risk kids in New York City. This hits close enough to home that I looked at it with a critical eye, but it's an interesting story and interesting format.

*** Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution by Julia Alekseyeva
Two for the price of one! Alekseyeva is sharing the story of her grandmother's life in Soviet Russia, and how her life as an immigrant to the US, reflects her grandma's. This era and area are of great interest to me in general.

*** Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir by Tom Hart
I always say how much I like going into books blind. Well, this was the exception. Rosalie was Hart's daughter who died at age two. It's a beautiful meditation on grief and loss, but only you can decide if you really want to read a book about the aftermath of a toddler's death. Not for everyone.

***Lighter than My Shadow by Katie Green (my review on Goodreads here)
Green's tale of anorexia, compounded by her abuse by a so-called healer, is pretty tough going too. My 12 year old liked it a lot though, although she admitted to skimming over the skeevy stuff.

The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames
Honestly, I don't really remember this one, but I gave it three stars, so I enjoyed it.

***Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
I knew Brosgol's work from Anya's Ghost, which has been popular in my classroom for years. You might know her work from Leave Me Alone!, which was nominated for a Caldecott last year. Instead of fantasy, though, her latest is this fantastic memoir of her time at a Russian Heritage summer camp. I mentioned my thing about Russia already, and I loved the summer camp I attended, so I was completely delighted by this one.

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel
Okay, I don't remember a lot about this one either, but Cherson Siegel was a Puerto Rican emigre to NYC, so it's definitely a nice diverse, own voices read.

The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley
Gownley uses a graphic novel to tell the story of how he became a cartoonist. (The "dumbest idea" is when his friend suggests he use that doodling he constantly does to impress a girl.)

*** The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
Mark Long's dad was a Houston area reporter who befriended a local professor in the 1960s. Long is white, the friend, black. It's an interesting look at the civil rights movement in a specific locale, and shows how personal experience can change people's minds better than any rhetoric ever will.

Some More Magnificent Graphic Novel Memoirs For Your Consideration

  • ***Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier are probably the most famous graphic novels for young people in existence, and for good reason. They are so engaging that many students don't even realize they're not fiction.
  • ***Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi might be the first graphic novel memoir I read, and I was hooked. 
  • ***Something New by Lucy Knisley. I first read her food memoir, Relish, but I prefer this story of her wedding and all the many thoughts she had about sexism, the patriarchy, love, commercialization, and catering.
  • March Vol. 1-3 by John Lewis is the famed US Representative from Georgia's memoir of his early days as a Civil Rights activist.
  • My Friend Dahmer by Derk Backderf is possibly the only book I've read without rating. It's about his memories of the guy who would become the most famous cannibal in modern history. Fascinating, but...ew.
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale is a book I think most middle schoolers (and former middle schoolers) will be able to relate to. How do you find good friends? What does it mean when friendships end?
  • *** Marbles, Mania, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney is pretty  much what it says--an honest look at mental illness over time.
  • Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash is about Thrash's coming out to herself and then to others while at a summer camp for Very Proper Southern Young Ladies.
  • *** Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast was a definite case of right book, right time for me. As she shared the end of her parents' lives, it made me sob and it made me cackle with glee.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is "a family tragicomic" that has somehow been adapted into a musical. 
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson covers a childhood of abuse, his first love, and his grappling with faith.
  • *** Tomboy by Liz Prince is a great look at gender binary.
  • *** Stitches by David Small is a disturbing story of a dysfunctional family.
  • *** Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh is technically an illustrated memoir, not a graphic novel memoir. But it's awesome, and it has pictures. Terrible pictures, but that's part of the point. 
  • *** Little White Duck by Na Liu is about her childhood in post-Maoist China
  • Drawing From Memory by Allen Say tells how he risked it all for his art.
  • *** Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. George is one of those crazy family stories that make you glad memoirs exist so we can find out about them.
  • *** Maus 1 and 2 by Art Spiegelman might not quite belong here--it's ostensibly about mice, and it's main focus is biographical, not autobiographical. But nobody's ever thought it was actually a talking-animals book, and Spiegelman does reflect a lot on how his father's experience during the Holocaust has influenced his own life.
  • El Deafo by Cece Bell isn't about superhero bunnies either. Bell shares what it was like growing up deaf.

Monday, July 9, 2018

TTT: Best So Far in 2018

With the delightful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish moving on to other things, TTT is now hosted by just one of their contingent, That Artsy Reader Girl .  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check it out!

The topic this week is:


There are 29 books I've given 5 stars to so far this year, so I'm going to share with you my top three, then the remaining seven will be those with the fewest ratings/reviews on Goodreads, because they need the love. Do you really need me telling you that Hunger Games and Turtles All the Way Down are worth a look? I'm working on a post about graphic novels, so I didn't add any more after my top three.

1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I love this book about a woman who's dealt with early trauma by shutting herself off completely from the world. It's hilarious and sad and affirming and just one of those books. It's the only one I've rated "all the stars" so far this year.

2. I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina. This is the one I picked for my "everybody should be reading it this summer" book. Timely, grounded in history, emotional. Plus it's an #ownvoices graphic novel. 

3. There There by Tommy Orange. One of those books that provoked so many thoughts, I actually broke down and wrote a review

4. Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon (160 reviews) An atmospheric study of character, time and place more than an actual murder mystery. Have I ever read a Native American woman protagonist that wasn't written by Louise Erdrich before?

5. Steel Seraglio by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey (609 reviews) Yes, this was written by parents and their daughter. Yes, it's the most amazing feminist middle Eastern fantasy epic you've never heard of.

6. The Wicker King by Kay Ancrum (1,058 reviews) This is a physically beautiful book but more importantly (coughIlluminaeFilescough) it's a great and unusual story. It's about love and mental illness and bad decisions and loyalty.

7. The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis (1,284 reviews) It's Australian. It has three narrators, all of whom were best friends, in their own way, with a guy who just died. I have a group of four friends that centers around one of us, and it's taken us nearly 40 years to develop parallel friendships, so I get it.

8. Rebound by Kwame Alexander (2,610 reviews) This is a prequel to his Newbery award winning novel in verse, The Crossover. I'd recommend reading that one first, even though it's chronologically later. Knowing the events of the future make this book even more poignant. I love the 80s flavor of this one.

9. Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali (2,805 reviews) This one made me cry. In a good way.

10. Nest by Esther Ehrlich (3,047) The rare middle grade novel that pulls no punches. Again, I like the '70s setting, even though it reminds me more of the east coast novels I read than of my west coast childhood. 

Wow, what an ORANGE list, and I'm not just talking about the author of There There. Given that it's my least favorite color, you can rest assured I'm recommending books based on their content, not their covers. I hope you discover some new titles, or get the push to read one you've been considering, from this group.