Sunday, February 28, 2016

January and February Reads

I first became aware of Walter Dean Myers when I was in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and attended an event at which Mr. Myers spoke, co-sponsored by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Sunrise over Fallujah is a novel, yet, it too brings history to life for readers. Published in 2008 by Scholastic, it's intended for readers 12 years old and up; however, I found its themes of war, violence, and friendships under difficult circumstances make it entirely appropriate for adults as well. Mr. Myers' writing is excellent, and his characters and dialog are believable.

Mr. Myers spoke about his love of reading and how he tried to hide the fact that he was bringing books home from the public library by carrying them in a brown paper grocery bag. Author of more than 100 books for children and young adults, Mr. Myers is best known for his non-fiction, in which he brings history to life for young readers.

Walter Dean Myers. Sunrise over Fallujah. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Advance Reader's Copy. 281 pages. ISBN 9780439916240.

Euphoria by Lily King was my book club's January pick. The main characters in Euphoria are modeled after Margaret Mead and two of the men in her life. The book opens with Nell Stone and her husband Fen leaving a remote area where they had been living with a dangerous cannibalistic tribe, on their way to another area to find and study another tribe. During their journey they meet up with and befriend Andrew Bankson, another anthropologist, and he helps them find a tribe not far from his own. His motives are driven by his loneliness; he wants friends nearby who understand his work. Nell and Fen simply want an interesting tribe to study and write about. As they spend more time with each other, Andrew begins to see the tensions in Nell and Fen's marriage, some stemming from Nell's more successful career, and some from Fen's recklessness. This book was impossible to put down; the writing is excellent and the characters are fascinating.

Lily King. Euphoria. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014. Uncorrected Proof. 253 pages. ISBN 9780802122551.

The title Dark Dude is based on a slur used by some in reference to a person of color with light skin. Rico is a first-generation Cuban-American living in Harlem in the 1970s. Facing financial difficulties, he changes from a private parochial school to a public school in his neighborhood, but is challenged by the violence he sees and experiences there. After skipping school one too many times, his parents decide to send him to Florida to attend military school under his uncle's supervision. Fearing that, he convinces his friend Jimmy to run away with him to live with their friend Gilberto on a farm in Wisconsin. The next year brings many challenges to Rico's and Jimmy's friendship, and they learn about the importance of family, friendships, and education.

Oscar Hijuelos. Dark Dude. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing Division, 2008. Advance Readers' Copy/Uncorrected Proof. 435 pages. ISBN 9781416969457.

In spite of the fact that John O'Hara was a Pennsylvania native who left his archives to Penn State, where I worked for 12 years, I've never read a John O'Hara novel until this past month when I pulled The Instrument off of a shelf. It tells the story of Yank Lucas, an aspiring writer, who almost dies when the flame on his stove goes out and his apartment fills with gas. Saved by a neighbor, he uses this experience as inspiration for the third act in a play he's writing, which turns out to be the best thing he's ever done. He becomes an overnight sensation and his play is overwhelmingly successful. Throughout the development and rehearsals for his play Yank begins an affair with the leading lady of his play, Zena Gollum. She leaves her husband for Yank and hoping for marriage, she's crushed when he leaves on opening night, not even watching the play to its successful conclusion. Yank drives until his car breaks down, then takes a room in a rural Vermont town. Known as the now famous writer, he becomes a focus of attention for the women in town, leading to another disastrous affair. Yank uses women as his muses, then finds that he has to leave them after the conclusion of each play. Although I like the writing, I have to admit that I don't like O'Hara's characters very much. The dialog reminds me of TV sitcoms in which the characters constantly banter and bicker; I don't know anyone who speaks like that in real life. Yank's misogynistic views on life and his mistreatment of women are unappealing; I found the character almost unworthy of a book-length study.

John O'Hara. The Instrument. New York: Random House, 1967. 308 pages.

The February pick for my book club was Bich Minh Nguyen's Short Girls. Van and Linh Luong are second-generation Vietnamese Americans. Written in chapters that alternate their points of view, Short Girls tells how they came to live such wildly different lives in spite of their childhood closeness. Van has grown up to become an immigration attorney and has what appears to be a dream marriage. Linh is a college dropout who has moved from job to job and who's dating a married man. Both of their lives come to a crisis point when Van's husband Miles walks out on her, and Linh tries to leave the married man she's been having an affair with. At the same time, their father is demanding their help and attention as he becomes an American citizen and finally succeeds in getting some interest in his inventions, in the form of a reality TV show that showcases inventors. I loved this book; the writing is excellent and the challenges the sisters face are recognizable to all women. Height is a theme throughout; Mr. Luong's inventions all try to improve life for short people. The challenges of assimilating into another culture are also thoroughly explored.

Bich Minh Nguyen. Short Girls. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. 292 pages. ISBN 9780143117506.

I picked up The Cry of the Dove at the State College AAUW book sale, and not being familiar with the author, I think it must have been the striking cover that caught my attention. Salma is a Bedouin Arab in Jordan who has sex out of wedlock and gets pregnant. Denied by her lover, she is taken away into protective custody to have the baby. Essentially, protective custody means prison, and it's necessary for Salma to protect her from an honor killing by her brother or father. Her daughter is taken away from her as soon as she's born, and Salma remains in prison for six more years before a nun arranges with the prison to take her away after a midnight release. She's spirited out of the country and eventually to England. Salma changes her name to Sally and lives an impoverished existence, first in a hostel and later renting a room from a drunken elderly woman. She gets a job as an assistant tailor and dreams of returning to get her daughter. The narrative goes back and forth among many time periods, from the time when she met her lover, to prison, to her early existence in England, to the present. As the characters and story develops it becomes clear how devastating life is for someone who loses her family, not to violence or death, but through ostracism and indifference. This sad story is all the worse for it being true to real life.

Fadia Faqir. The Cry of the Dove. New York: Black Cat, 2007. 282 pages. ISBN 9780802170408.