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.


  1. Great reviews! The dog on that book is adorable. I’m glad your students liked it. I may have had a massive obsession with In Cold Blood when I was in high school. I read it multiple times in a row. Have you seen the movie Capote? It’s about the writing of In Cold Blood. I don’t know how true it is, but I liked it.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I had read Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and it was a little bit of a struggle for me, since I didn't really like the characters, and the author seemed to have really negative opinions about prep schools. I don't know, I never went back in for more of Sittenfeld's work because of that experience.

  3. Thanks for the perceptive review of my book Adrift at Sea. I think it is so important, especially now, for people to be able to step into the shoes of a child like Tuan. There is a companion book coming out in October, written by me and Tuan's sister Van, who was 4 when Tuan escaped with this mother and sisters. She was left behind. Here's more about that book:,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch

    1. I'm picking up Adrift at Sea for my classroom tomorrow, and I'll put the next book on my list! Thank you for stopping by.


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