Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Samuels)

I don’t know how many essays make an anthology, but 20 David Samuels’ essays is definitely too many. I had to drag myself through the last few. There’s definitely a voice here – a cynical tone that grows wearisome and mocking by the time you arrive at the last titular essay about a dog track. Samuels writes well about music and his piece about the modern Woodstock is a highlight of the collection. “The Making of a Fugitive” is a troubling piece about those who advocate killing doctors who perform abortions. Throughout the collection, Samuels seems to have an odd obsession with race, particularly African-Americans. In “400,000 Salesman Can’t be Wrong” and “Bringing Down the House,” the African-Americans are named by race. Everyone else, we are meant to presume, is white. In “Life is Full of Important Choice,” Samuels offers the single most disturbing line that I’ve read in a while. Speaking of his Brooklyn neighborhood a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he writes, “It was as if the ashes from the tower had fertilized our neighborhood” (256). That line made me shudder (and continues to do so); the book itself made me yawn.


Trouble at Fort La Pointe (Ernst)

What’s interesting about this book on the surface is the mystery – Who wrecked the canoe? Who stole the furs? Who will win the contest? What will happen to Suzette’s father?

I liked the character of Suzette – a mixed-race child (French / Ojibwe) – and a strong, female protagonist. She’s trying to navigate the life of a Metis -a  girl of mixed blood. Is there a way for her to respect the traditions of her grandmother and be a strong, independent female at the same time? I think this is the question that ultimately proves more powerful and holds the book together. Like a lot  of teenagers, she’s trying to figure out where she belongs.

I don’t know enough about the Ojibwe culture to vouch for the authenticity of this book, but what I see her seems right to me.

The characters are nuanced. There are no stereotypes. There is some minor name calling, but it serves the plot. No one is completely innocent here; no one is completely guilty.

And since I am rarely able to figure out whodunnit, it’s not much to say that I fell for one of the red herrings here.

The writing is good and keeps you turning the pages. The Ojibwe language and customs are explained in a subtle way that maintains the flow of the story. The explanation of how the fur trade works – and the possible consequences for all involved – these elements are central to the story.

Recommended for grades 3-5.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Everett)

I remember adding this book to my stack based on a review and because it was published by Graywolf, a local press. It sat there for a while and I continued to be amused by the idea of a character named Not Sidney Poitier. Finally, it rose to the top, and I read it. The quotation from The Washington Post calls Everett an “experimental” and “modern” novelist. Those two adjectives should have given me pause. On the back, Publishers Weekly says that the book is sparked by “satiric brilliance.” The first target of his satire seems to be Ted Turner, an odd choice since the book was published in 2009. (He gets in a fair share of his digs at Jane Fonda as well.) Stereotypical southern cops seem to be another easy mark. Everett has his sights set on Morehouse College, fraternities and Bill Cosby as well. Another target? A Professor Percival Everett, who teaches a Philosophy of Nonsense course at Morehouse. The plot, such as it is, tracks this man, Not Sidney Poitier, as he tries to make something of his life and his inheritance. There is something interesting going on at the end involving what may be his own murder – though he is asked to identify what may be his own body (remember? “experimental,” “modern”). But that this is just about a fraction of his fortune that he intended to give to some nuns removes much of the punch here. Though, in the end, I just may not have gotten this modern, experimental novel. Ah well.

Misterioso (Dahl)

Having finished Mankell’s Wallender series, I was in search of a new Swedish mystery series when Mankell himself – or at least his Facebook persona – recommended Arne Dahl’s Misterioso. So I found the book on CD at the library and was instantly hooked. Once again, we have a Swedish writer interested in more than just plot. From the very beginning, the plot raises issues that are familiar from Mankell’s work, but take on more urgency here – immigration, for example. Much turns on the banking policies of the 80s as well. Like Mankell, Dahl seems to suggest that Sweden’s increased crime rate is kind of an overdue payment for choices made in previous decades. We are, Dahl implies, possibly our own worst enemies. As Dahl (and credit goes to the translator as well) writes, “The abyss lurks inside of us.” More than a few characters come face-to-face with it in this novel.

Dahl’s work is incredibly suspenseful – a dangerous choice for something to listen to in the car. More than once, I sat in parking lots before turning off the car in order to finish a section. Anyone who can write the line above about the abyss and describe someone’s nose as a “capacious schnoz” gets applause from me.

The title of the novel comes from a Thelonious Monk composition, and though Dahl describes it quite well, I ended up buying it for myself.

Even though there may be a few too many meaningful glances exchanged between and among characters, and I wasn’t always sure what Dahl was doing with point of view, it didn’t take long for me to know that this was going to be my next series. I made plans to devour Dahl’s complete output  only to learn that this is the only one available in English for now.

So which mystery series am I going to read while I wait?!?!?!

Nothing But The Truth (Avi)

I’ve always found Avi, as a concept, kind of annoying. Why just one name? Was there some kind of arrogance there? Then I found Crispin: The Cross of Lead to be kind of pedestrian, despite all of the honors it received. I liked The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, but not enough to send me on an Avi reading spree. So when a colleague chose this book for her book club selection, I gritted my teeth and put it off for as long as I can. And then I read it.

This novel, this stunning documentary novel, is absolutely remarkable. It’s multi-genre – memos, journal entries, dialogue, letters, telegrams, radio transcripts, (it pre-dates the email era – one wonders what Avi would have done with it) etc. – which keeps it fast-paced; this serves the story well. What happens when a story spins out of control? What happens when that story starts simple and spirals into something much more complicated? What is, as Adichie asks, the danger of a single story?

What Avi manages here, through all of these different snippets, is to make every major character credible. You understand where everyone is coming from. And your loyalties shift. I recognized these characters and often wanted to shout at them. No one’s motives are simple or even pure. No one is to blame and everyone is to blame. And the ending is absolutely a punch in the heart.

I’d love to teach this book.

One With Others (Wright)

From the title to the very end, this National Book Award finalist is one of the most unique and powerful pieces I’ve ever read. It’s considered poetry, but I’m not at all certain that that label captures what takes place in these 150 pages. There is beautiful imagery, there is narrative, there is research, there are interviews. It’s the first poetry book that I would call a page-turner. It’s set against the backdrop of a Civil Rights event I’ve never encountered in any books, the 1969 March Against Fear.

The image of the students being detained in a swimming pool will haunt me for a long while.

Wright writes, “Whoever rides into the scene changes it” (116). She means her mentor, V, the protagonist of this poem. But the same could be said of Wright herself.

This is a must read.

Someday Angeline (Sachar)

What a wonderful book. There are stock elements here – a kid who is an outsider at school (and attracts another outsider), parents missing (one literally, one more spiritually), a good teacher and a bad teacher – but Sachar makes it come across as fresh. I knew I was invested when I really choked up during the scene at Mitchell Beach. (I don’t want to spoil anything.) Great to hand to a 3rd grader or to read aloud together.