Books read in November 2013

I managed to delete my November book post, goodness knows how.  Happily, I had already published all the reviews on Goodreads, and I keep a list in my diary of the books I read.  So it was just a matter of checking the diary to list the books, finding and copying the reviews from Goodreads et voila!  November book post, recreated.  As you can see, I was busy this month.  That Elizabeth Gilbert book alone was pretty thick.

Picture books
Elisha Cooper
Read for Librarian Book Group
Before the Librarian Book Group, I would have found this book very adequate. But now I’m pickier. In this book we travel across the country on different trains: commuter rail, passenger train, freight train, overnight train, and high-speed train.

My first problem was that there were recognizable details in the book (Chicago, for instance) and yet a refusal to name the towns. Also, I feel uncomfortable if I can’t identify the time period and until we got to the high-speed train, it wasn’t clear we were in the present. There are some solid descriptive words, but also descriptions that miss their mark. With the freight train, the train is described as “containers the color of tomatoes and eggs.” Yet there are pictures of train cars that are not the colors of tomatoes and eggs. And it may just be a West Coast thing, but in my opinion the dominant color of the freight train is a very bright mustard yellow.

Also in the freight train section there are two pages about the freight train’s speed. “The Freight Train rolls slower than slow.” Is the train really going slowly, or is a larger point being made about the vast landscape? 
This is not at all clear. If the train is traveling slowly, than why? And what’s the difference between a passenger train and an overnight train? Both have passengers and both take journeys that are overnight, as anyone who has traveled from New York to Chicago knows.

I laughed out loud when we got to the high-speed train. Because while I would love for the US landscape to be crisscrossed with high-speed trains, the closest we have is the Acela from Boston to DC. And it’s not really high-speed so much as a bit faster than normal train speed.

Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat
Hilarious story of a Lion, a Wolf and a Shark trying to reform their image.

J Books
E. Rusch
This is a gripping book, on the surface, at least. It’s about the scientists who run the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP). They fly to volcanoes around the world and help local scientists make the calls to evacuate, as well as assist how the volcano will blow. Interesting program. Not-so-gripping text. I had to keep forcing myself to finish it.

The Year of Billy Miller
Kevin Henkes
I’m going to chalk up my indifference to a general dislike of j-books, rather than anything the author did or didn’t do in writing this. I didn’t like the huge jumps in time, though, they were very disjointed.

YA Books
Openly Straight
Bill Conigsberg
Read for Librarian Book Group
Wow. So we’ve made it though the era where just being gay is enough to drive the narrative and now we’re in the era of parsing of the gay narrative. Very cool, especially in such a smartly-written book as this. What happens when a happily “out” kid wants to spend the last two years of high school just being a kid, not the gay kid? Not so much in the closet, says our main character Rafe, as in the doorway.

Really good stuff here. Funny in places and worth the read.

Side note:   A Separate Place is having its moment in the zeitgeist it seems, I’ve read two books in the last two months that mention it. Same with Boston accents. What’s up with that?

Rapture Practice
Aaron Hartzler
Read for Librarian Book Group
I don’t have children myself, but I imagine that one of the many things that parents feel a general sense of terror about is “what if my child doesn’t share my values?” I mean, here they’ve given birth to them (or possibly adopted them) and raised them with all the values and supports of the life they have built for themselves and what if, despite all that nurturing and good examples and shared DNA, their child turns and heads down a different path, perhaps one they don’t approve of? It’s frightening.

So lies the central conundrum in Hartzler’s memoir. It begins with an excellent first line: “Something you should know up front about my family: We believe that Jesus is coming back.” And Aaron believes it too. The early chapters cover his younger life when he exalts in the same Christian beliefs that buoy his parents. Those are great chapters, showing the love of his family and the love of Jesus. And then Aaron grows older and problems arise. His mother discovers he’s been listening to Rock & Roll music (actually adult contemporary, specifically Peter Cetera and Amy Grant singing “The Next Time I Fall”) on the sly. Rock music is not something that is acceptable to Aaron’s family and his parents force him to pray for forgiveness.

This is where the book diverges from an interesting introspection on growing up conservative Christian in America. Hartzler writes, “I don’t want to disobey Mom and Dad, but the truth is, I don’t think what I did was wrong. As much as they believe this music is rebellious, I don’t. That’s the funny thing about belief: No one else can do it for you.”

Aaron’s journey through high school is a rocky one, though it’s mostly an internal journey as he does his best to present a facade of belief to his parents. But his facade is built upon confusion and questioning of the beliefs and practices of the parents who he loves deeply. For many of us, being a teenager was about figuring out who we are in a world that offers us so many promises and choices. Hartzler writes carefully and tenderly about his adolescence and his narrative is heartbreaking at times. I mean, the kid had to sneak around to go to a movie. Not an R-rated movie, ANY movie.

This is a great book, sweet and funny and sad all at once. I’m hoping for a second memoir about his college years, because I’m betting that would be fabulous too.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Cat Winters
Read for Librarian Book Group
I hate to lead off by judging a book by its cover but I hated this cover. The girl looks like a young Amy Adams, which is distracting, and in no part of the book was she wearing a white dress. In fact, the point was made several times that all her clothing was brown, black, or navy blue. So I think this might be one to recommend with the book held at one’s side.

That said, this book has a lot of good stuff. Historical fiction (1918 influenza epidemic specifically), Ghosts (spiritualist movement), romance, mystery, and adventure. Oh, and anagrams. There are even historic photos, which I mostly found distracting, but which might be something of interest to other people. Overall, a good solid story. Although I found it hard to get started. The author dumps a bunch of things in your lap and you have to sort through them as best you can.

Out of the Easy
Ruta Sepetys
Read for Librarian Book Group
Everyone loves an underdog. And what better underdog than the smart 17-year-old daughter of a French Quarter Whore in the 1950s? Great setting, solid characters, good struggle. A fine, fine book with some tears at the end.

Picture Me Gone
Meg Resoff
Read for Librarian Book Group
I think this book might be lost among other books. It’s a quiet story about Mila, a girl with a keen sense of observation and a knack for stringing facts together. When her father’s best friend goes missing, she’s curious and eager to help.

The above makes the book sound like she’s a teenage gumshoe, but she’s not. She’s just a kid who pays attention and tries to make sense of the world. It’s interesting to see what Mila observes, especially in contrast to her father, who is not terribly tuned in.

Rosoff is not interested in using punctuation, a stylistic quirk that annoys me. The page does look invitingly easy to read, but sometimes it’s hard to tell what is dialogue and what is not. Mila is also a child who calls her parents by their first name, which is not expressly stated. That, combined with the lack of punctuation, makes for a bumpy beginning before settling in to what was a very good book.

Counting by 7’s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Read for Librarian Book Group
I work at an elementary school and over the years I’ve met hundreds of children. The vast majority of them lie in the great bell of the bell curve, but there have been a smattering of outliers over the years. They’ve been weird, because that’s what it means to be hanging out on the edges of the curve, and for some of them I’ve taken a deep breath, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best for them in middle school. Because their weird makes them fabulous kids and will make them fabulous adults. But sometimes weird isn’t the best thing to bring along for your adolescence.

So it is for the main character of our book. She’s twelve and she’s delightfully weird. I totally fell in love with her. She has no friends, but has such a stalwart attitude, and such high hopes for middle school, that I couldn’t do anything but love her. Things happen and her plight is a bit worrisome, but she just keeps going.

This is a great YA book for adults. I’m not really sure the YAs themselves will like it. The writing struck me as an older YA, but I’m not sure the older YAs will want to read about a 12-year-old girl. Perhaps the audience is other highly advanced 12-year-old girls? But forget the YAs. You grownups will love this.

Also. In the acknowledgements, Sloan listed 7 teachers who made a difference in her life. I would like to add my list. Mr. Widermire (McKinley Elementary), Mr. Kaufman (West Jr. High), Mrs. Brown (West Jr. High), Ms. Clark (Borah High School), Mr. Sullivan (Borah High School), Mrs. McCurdy (Borah High School), Dr. Cottrell (Cottey College).

Graphic Novels
Gene Luen Yang
Read for Librarian Book Group
Man, history is a bummer. And this comes from a person who enjoys history so much she majored in it in college. I loved the way this book (and the companion Saints) brought the nuances of the Boxer Rebellion to life. It did a great job of having me wanting both sides to win and lose because the whole thing is so massively depressing. I’m really ready to sit down and sing Kumbaya with the world and just all get along.

Unless, of course, women are going to be marginalized and mistreated as they are throughout this book, Red Lantern Brigade notwithstanding. Subjugation of women makes me want to spit and perhaps foment a rebellion of my own. Ideally using words and not weapons.

“Adult” books
Antony and Cleopatra
So this is like Romeo and Juliet in that they end up dead, but not like Romeo and Juliet in that there isn’t any good fighting, or secret plans that go awry or feuding families or even a fun, bawdy nurse. It took a very long time for me to read to the end. Luckily, the play as performed is a bit more entertaining. But overall it is a Romeo and Juliet as played by boring politicians.

You Can’t Get There From Here
Gayle Forman
Forman and her husband set out for a year of travel to the fringes and we get to go along. In nine segments we meet all sort of interesting characters and people. A solid travel book with the bonus of glimpses into things that would later work their way into Forman’s novels. Unlike Forman’s novels, the book wasn’t compulsively readable, but it was quite enjoyable.

The Signature of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
My Thanksgiving present to myself was the shunting aside of other reading obligations to dive into the very thick production of fiction by Ms. E. Gilbert. When an author has written something that I greatly enjoyed and then suffered a backlash for writing that very same something, I get protective of them. So I was nervous for this effort, because I worried that maybe Eat, Pray, Love was going to be it for Gilbert. (Although if she had only written The Last American Man, that would have been enough.) But no! This was great! I could tell from the first paragraph that this would be a feast of fiction and it was. Gilbert has the talent of co-opting the 19th century novel style while still being enjoyably readable for a 21st century audience. Her characters are wonderful, the lengthy book zips along and so deft is the mastery of her craft, I happily read multiple pages about a topic I care little about (ahem, moss.) Well done!

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