Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

Hurricane Story, Jennifer Shaw

On Sunday night, we got home from a three-week trip halfway across the country and back. In twenty days, we visited twelve states and drove over 6,000 miles. We visited roughly twenty-four friends (ten families), stayed in five hotels, one airbnb apartment, and in some of the most pillow-filled guest rooms imaginable (especially amusing since we packed our own beloved pillows and slept on them happily every night). We woke up at 4am in Albuquerque to see the first exquisitely peaceful dawn patrol of the city’s famous hot air balloon fiesta. We stayed out way too late in smoky jazz clubs in New Orleans. We played board games with my husband’s best friends from college, and watched his team win their homecoming game in the rain. I have a tiny clay “puppy” given to me the very first night of the trip by a new young friend, carefully protected from the ravages of the road with toilet paper wrappings, and I have beautiful autumnal pictures of Temple Square in Salt Lake City (mere blocks from where we had afternoon beers with friends who used to live down the street from us). We stargazed in Arches National Park and had catfish and green chiles and grits until all we wanted was something green. It was a wonderful trip. Exhausting and ridiculous in its scope, but still precious.

And because we were driving, I was able to justify buying a few books to add to my collection, although admittedly I forgot about most of them as they were lost under the detritus of car travel. This one though, this little volume of photographs, I’ve been carrying with me since New Orleans. My husband found Hurricane Story when we went to an after hours event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We’d spent two hours wandering around the museum, mostly exploring the Gasperi Collection (self-taught, outsider and visionary art) while half-listening to the band that had been booked in the lobby (extremely loud punk-jazz…is that a thing? It’s what they sounded like). It was our last night in the city, and we’d spent the past few days digging into the history of the region (an absolutely fascinating part of the country I had known virtually nothing about).

I suspect that’s why I was so taken by Shaw’s story. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I remember the overwhelming imagery of a ravaged city, but I had neither been there, nor knew anyone living in the area, and it felt very removed from my life. I had no frame of reference for what was being lost, or even (despite the hours of news I watched) how it could be happening. Levies and wards were words that meant almost nothing to me. It wasn’t until I was walking the city, listening to people who had lived there for years, and exploring it for myself that I truly appreciated both the devastation and the resiliency of the community.

New Orleans is a fascinating mix of uninhibited exuberance and solemn tradition. The beads and the drinks and the food are shiny paper on a city that deserves to be unwrapped and appreciated more deeply for its political and cultural history. It wasn’t my favorite stop of the trip, but it is where I learned the most, and thought most deeply about many troubling aspects of our nation’s past and present. Shaw’s book added another dimension to my perspective of the city. I finally got to read about the hurricane nine years ago through the eyes of an artist, rather than a reporter.

 

For more about Jennifer Shaw, go here.

Running in Literature, Roger Robinson

“Runners know tiredness in all its many shades and effects. Among life’s significant memories, we carry those runs or races when tiredness was our stepping-stone to high achievement, and those when its deadweight sank us; days when it crept into our legs like a wasting disease, or suddenly leapt upon us like a cougar from a rock; times when we grappled with it, and overcame, and times when we were overcome.” (loc 68)

I’ve been flipping through this book since I got it at Christmas, and I have to say, it’s not my favorite on the subject. It’s not that it isn’t excellent at what it sets out to do – creating context and exploring the history of running in literature from ancient texts to poetry to modern juvenile fiction to resource books and beyond – it just doesn’t sit well with me during this off period of my own running.

I’d like to blame these bad months on giving up meat for Lent, but I only started that a few weeks ago, and this funk has been with me since the beginning of the summer. It would be so easy to call it a dietary imbalance and write it off, but I know it goes much deeper than that, and reading Robinson’s books was like salt in the wound. So much of what he captures in the excerpts he picks and in the stories he has pieced together reflect on running from what I would call “the expert’s perspective.”

I have solid runs, and I have miles that have felt amazing, but I will never have an under thirty minute 10k time, as the author has; my body simply isn’t built for that. Robinson comes from a place of knowledge about the sport that I cannot hope to imagine, and his writing draws from that innate, superior, bodily understanding. Even when he’s discussing literature that so epically captures the hardships of running, he doesn’t manage to capture my hardships so much as the struggles of those whose worst days are far better than my very best.

It’s not his fault. I came to running much later in life than I would like, and I suspect I will always relate more closely to writers like John Bingham or Peter Sagal than I will men like Robinson, who, in tone and nature, may be more inclined toward seriousness in sport than I am. For the history buff though, this book is a lovely exploration of running throughout the ages, and for runners who are not in a pout, as I am, his writing certainly captures the elegance of the sport with ease.

For those like me, however, who have been plodding along trying to reignite that light-hearted, joyful spark on the trails, this may serve as a reminder that there exist paintings on ceramic vases portraying more life-like, fleet-footed running than I manage to do most days…

For more on Roger Robinson, head over here.

The Good Braider, Terry Farish

One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.   Geoffrey Canada, Waiting for Superman

I don’t love documentaries across the board. Maybe I should (I know my father, husband, and more sophisticated friends think so) but I don’t. I’m generally drawn to those about children and teenagers; this is true when it comes to books and films alike. I’m sure that after Monday’s post on Bringing Up Bébé, this doesn’t come as a much of a revelation. I watched Mad Hot Ballroom back to back with Waiting for Superman last year for the fun of it (as it turns out, the fun of it involved a lot of crying).

At Christmas two years back, my father gave me a PBS documentary called Children Will Listen about a production of my favorite musical Into the Woods, put on at the Kennedy Center in New York by group of underprivileged students and a dedicated group of teachers and arts professionals. It reignited the dream I had when I went to college as a Theatre Education major; I wanted to open an after-school arts program for children whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to expensive classes. I have no idea how I would have funded such a program or who I would have found with the business savvy to balance out my flightiness when it comes to spreadsheets, but it was born out of an unwavering belief that all children deserve more than the bare minimum.

A month ago, we happened upon a new documentary called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. I watched it even though I hate muppets (and had always hated Elmo in particular). Kevin Clash, Elmo’s creator and a master puppeteer, started making puppets when he was in elementary school. He was sewing and building his own puppets and putting on shows in his neighborhood by his early teens. The film followed his whole career, but the part that drew me in was the old film taken by his family during his childhood – he was so focused, so passionate – he believed he had the ability to create magic.

When I find stories like these about children rising to meet the high expectations of themselves or of dedicated adults in their lives, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. How fortunate that people exist who care so much about improving the lives of children and families – it makes me happier just knowing such people are out there.

With a book like The Good Braider, that same feeling explodes out of my chest and just covers the rest of my life. Terry Farish has written a novel in verse that combines the stories she has heard for years directing the literacy program at the New Hampshire Humanities Council (serving immigrant and refugee populations) into a stunning novel about a young woman struggling to survive, first in war-torn South Sudan, then later in culture-exploding Portland, Maine.

Whenever I read a book, I fold pages down, I underline favorite passages, I make notes to myself to share with others later. This book is full – I want to share so many sections of it just to help you understand what a deft hand Farish has, how aptly she renders both the atrocities of war and the simple joys that defy it. When I looked back through all the pages, however, the piece I finally decided on was the very first poem of the book.

Fire
I run breathless into my house.
What will I tell her?
I will tell her, Andrew has my book.
The teacher assigned us to work together.
But my mother does not turn to me.
She wears her after-work clothes,
her African dress that hangs
loose from her shoulders.
Maybe she has not seen me with Andrew –
my friend – seen me leap from his truck.
I watch the bend of her shoulders.
She holds herself rigid and does not
look at me. I’ll leave here again when the families
from Juba come to eat and watch news of the war.
I turn and look toward the door.
As if she can read my mind, she commands,
“You will stay in this house!”
She knows.
She knows I have been away from our people.
I have slipped out of Africa for a breath of time.
Do my hair and skin smell different?
I pause at the kitchen doorway.
She turns, and her eyes are ferocious.
I watch the water bubble up.
In Juba, the pot would need huge flames
to build the water to this boil.
I step toward my mother and the boiling water.
I mean to take the spoon and stir while the aseeda
thickens in the boiling water, this dense white food
that to our Sudanese people is life.
Instead I say, “Sometimes I do not want to know
how many people have died in the war.”
I say this
as the aseeda bubbles loudly
over the red electric coils.
Maybe it is those words
that cause what happens next.
She grabs my arm. She holds it hard
by my wrist and my elbow.
She twists my hand over the steam.

Yumis! Mother! You are hurting me!”

Now the war comes back to me.

Again, there is only the war. (pg 10)

This is the first book I’ve been sent to review before publication (it came out May 1st, but I’ve been hanging onto it for a while). Terry Farish is a friend and colleague of my mother, and she asked me, after reading J’adore, if I would be willing to look at a copy of the uncorrected proof. We’ve never met, and I probably never would have seen this book if she hadn’t sent it to me. That’s the cruel way of the world – so many life-changing books exist just outside our daily experiences. I think it might be the universe’s way of apologizing for all the terrible things we have to witness and endure when the right book does manage to find its way into our hands.

This is that right book. It’s the right book if you’re socially conscious, if you’re family centric, if you feel displaced, if you love to teach, if you want to learn, if you read about children and weep for the injustices they encounter, if you read about adults and feel shame for things you cannot change, if you read about mothers and marvel at their strength, if you read about fathers and wonder at their absence, if you read about war while hating the bombs that fall on your doorstep, if you read about peace and appreciate what little you have – this is the book for you. This story might not have the power to save us like Superman, but it inspires that breast-beating hope that ordinary people can make changes with their own two hands.

Terry Farish has her own site here, and she also has a fascinating site about The Good Braider here.

The Shadow of the Wind (a follow up), Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I couldn’t decide on Monday whether or not I would have more to say about this book when I finished it. Part of me felt certain I would just toss it aside, ready to check another book off of my ever-growing “To Read” list, but essentially unmoved by the strangeness  of the story.

I was wrong. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I often joke with my husband that I was lucky to have met him because he is always graciously right while I’m often enthusiastically mistaken, and together, we quite happily wind our way to the truth of things over time. I find I am most happy to be proven wrong when it comes to books, and with this book, I was definitely most joyfully mistaken.

This was a novel I took on out of a sense of obligation to the unread collection on my shelf (I know I’m not the only one to have a shelf like this, heavy with the best of intentions, but mostly abandoned for more familiar, comfortable pages), and in the beginning, although I found it fascinating, and the writer unbelievably talented, I wasn’t moved by it as I sometimes can be.

I crave those books that shift something in my soul though, that lay limply in my lap for long minutes after I’ve finished them. They’re usually not the books that make me laugh, or even those that I reread a dozen times; they may not even be my favorites, but they have this power to change a part of me forever. Most often the books that have the most profound effect on me are the most melancholy. They lay bare the parts of life that I don’t like to dwell on. Those stories produce characters that chill me while impressing upon me the importance of the choices I make every day. They remind me of the very worst parts of myself, and of the experiences I’ve had, but they also, crucially, remind me of the two things required to survive such circumstances – grit and compassion.

The grit, I believe, is what comes easiest for most people. The desire to survive is so strongly embedded in us that we can endure a great deal before we collapse or surrender. We are able to withstand devastation far beyond what we might think we’re capable of; in fact, we often find that our strength has been hiding in the darkness all along, and what we needed was for something beyond our control to allow us to venture out and find it. Once found, that strength is, not undefeatable, of course, but always within our reach. Having found the source, it becomes easier over time to draw from the well and fight the battles we must.

It’s much harder to maintain a sense of compassion when faced with those same tests. We might find ourselves able to survive, but parts of ourselves start to get broken off, destroyed by the choices we make in the process. One of the things I find so wonderful about this book is that even in the depths of tragedy (and by the end, they surely have plumbed those depths thoroughly) most of the characters, broken though they may be by the circumstances they find themselves in, have salvaged much of the kindness Fate has tried to rob from them.

I admit, I don’t like hard stories where the only survivors live in worlds constructed of their own guilt or malice or loneliness. Reality is eager enough to push those awful words into me every day on the news or in history books, and I’m just too much of a sponge to take it; if I spend a lot of time immersed in sadness or horror, it seeps through me and I start to feel helpless against the tide of all the things I can’t change. I don’t like feeling that way. I would rather believe that even small good things I do might influence the wider community. I like imagine other people doing the same, carrying on the fight against the darkness one kind word or gesture at a time.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón gets it. His book is filled with ordinary people trying to stem the tide of degradation and hatred through small, compassionate acts. Yes, the overarching story is a sad one, but it’s buoyed by a lightness that just cannot be denied.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I think spring has finally sprung here. I’ve taken my whole operation out to the balcony to enjoy the sunny weather. This is a desperate attempt on my part to get some work done because, and you’ll have to forgive me for this, my brain is not on books today. It’s on the epic marathon taking place in my hometown 3000 miles away. It’s on the run I had today, a run where I went two miles further than usual because running felt like the absolute best thing to be doing. It’s on the tree outside our bedroom that has decided it’s time to bloom the bright green shield that provides us our summer privacy from the neighbors across the way. It’s on the fact that somehow, even though it’s Monday and Mondays can be the worst (the worst of the worst), today is different. It makes me happy.

It’s funny too, because this book, The Shadow of the Wind, is sort of like that. It’s completely different from any book I can remember reading, and it’s strange, like having a good Monday is strange, but it makes me happy.

I don’t really know what I expected when I bought this book. It has a quote on the front by Stephen King. I’ve never read any Stephen King in my life. It’s described on the back  as a gothic read and a thrilling, erotic  tragedy. Maybe those words make you rush right out to the nearest book store, but I usually like my literature as far from the erotically tragic as possible.

The cover of the book reminds me a little of some of the scenes in The NeverEnding Story (or at least my twisted childhood perception of the movie), and consequently, I expected it would be an adventure story, something along the lines of Inkheart, maybe, but with more…erotic tragedy. I expected alternate realities, at the very least. Of course, it’s a New York Times Bestseller, so chances were good that science fiction would be kept to a minimum.

This book  reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House. My favorite line from all of their promotional material is “What was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?” That just about sums up the novel for me thus far (no, I haven’t finished. Did you know this was the last weekend to do your taxes?!).  The plot winds through the life of a young man in Barcelona; he’s a bibliophile desperate to save the works of his favorite author, a man shrouded in miserable mystery and heartbreak, from a terrifying stranger who wants to burn every last copy. (Okay, it’s actually really difficult to describe this book without sounding like fainting women and villains twirling marvelous mustaches appear on every page, but I promise, it’s much better than that…although as far as I can tell, most of the erotic tragedy encountered seems to be of the variety experienced by the vast majority of sixteen year old boys.)

“So what is it you’re going to show me?”
  “A number of things. In fact, what I’m going to show you is part of a story. Didn’t you tell me the other day that what you like to do is read?”
  Bea nodded, arching her eyebrows.
  “Well, this is a story about books.”
  “About books?”
  “About accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred, and of all the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.”
  “You talk like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel, Daniel.”
  “That’s probably because I work in a bookshop and I’ve seen too many. But this is a true story. As real as the fact that this bread they served us is three days old. And like all true stories, it begins and ends in a cemetery, although not the sort of cemetery  you imagine.”
  She smiled the way children smile when they’ve been promised a riddle or a conjuror’s trick. “I’m all ears.” (pg 178)

I admit I also initially put off reading this book because of the style in which its written – it’s an unusual blend of modern and old-fashioned sensibilities that takes some getting to used to – but now that I’ve gotten into it, the choice is integral to the magic of the story. It lends an air of richness – of falling into Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War – as he pulls the story together one strand at a time. I keep thinking I must be coming to the big reveal, then the author braids in another piece, and I can see how I still have 200 pages to go.

  “I told Bea how, until that moment, I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.” (p 183)

 

For more information on Carlos Ruiz Zafón, check out his site (although be forewarned: The Shadow of the Wind is apparently the first in a trilogy and there appear to be some spoilers on his homepage).