THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

Our mother-daughter book club read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for our most recent meeting. It’s about Junior, a dorky teenager living on an Indian reservation who makes the unprecedented move of transferring from his reservation high school to an all-white school 22 miles away. Like most of the people who live on the reservation, Junior is very poor. He has attended 42 funerals in his short life, most due to alcohol-related accidents and diseases. His parents are loving, but his father is an alcoholic and neither parent is capable of providing Junior with much support, emotional or financial.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about Junior’s attempt to fit in at his new school, among the rich white kids who have iPods and cars and three pairs of jeans, while maintaining his relationships back on the reservation, where he is deeply resented for his “desertion” of the tribe and pursuit of success. It’s funny, wry and very easy to read, but it’s not a light book. Alexie tackles racism, poverty, alcoholism, bullying, serious health issues and depression in the book, and it can be depressing. But Junior has hope that he can improve his life, and that he can rise above his childhood and succeed. He finds the good among the rich kids at the new school, and he forgives his old friends who turn on him when he returns to his old high school for a basketball game. He recognizes his parents’ limitations, but he loves them anyway.

I really liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just more depressing. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons featured throughout the book are poignant and funny at the same time. The girls in book club were moved by the condition of the reservation and the lack of hope so many of its residents felt. They were struck by how few options Native Americans have to improve their lives.

I recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a range of ages. Definitely worth a read.

Podcast: Memorial Day Weekend New Releases

I am a little behind on reviews – have two to write. I’ve been reading, just not reviewing! Soon to come: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt.

If you’re looking for new books for Memorial Day weekend, Nicole and I have a brand new Readerly podcast out with lots of irresistible new releases. Check it out (and if you like what you hear, please subscribe and/or leave us a review!)

 

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

Catching Up On The Readerly Report

Nicole Bonia and I have increased the frequency of our Readerly Report podcast episodes… have you checked the show out recently? Last week we posted an episode about the most disturbing books we’ve ever read, and each month we also discuss new releases that have caught our eye and books we’ve recently finished. Please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and if you like what you hear, leave us a review. If you have ideas for future episodes, we’d love to hear those too!

Thanks, and happy listening!

ALL GROWN UP by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up is about Andrea Bern, a woman in her early 40s who is childless and single. She had planned to be an artist, and still paints occasionally, but gave up in her 20s and now works in advertising and lives in Brooklyn.

Andrea is definitely messy – self-absorbed and immature, yet also funny and self-deprecating. She asserts that she wants neither a husband nor children, yet also laments her single status and complains about being lonely. She is close with her mother and brother, but when her brother and his wife have a daughter with severe health issues, she is incapable of providing any of them them the support they need to help live with their daughter’s round-the-clock needs.

I enjoyed the structure of the book – the chapters jumped around chronologically, with each chapter named for a woman who had some impact on Andrea’s life. Events that were explored in detail in one chapter were mentioned in passing on others, which I liked once I got used to it. I like Attenberg’s writing, which, like in The Middlesteins, is wry and observant.

But in the end, All Grown Up, left me cold. Andrea routinely sabotaged herself and her relationships, and she was so rarely empathetic or supportive that I just didn’t like her much. She could be generous, but only with money, rarely with her feelings.

All Grown Up was moderately entertaining while I read it, but I have not thought about it once in the week since I finished it. Just not much there.

 

 

THE ARRANGEMENT by Sarah Dunn

A new novel out from Sarah Dunn is always reason to celebrate, and I was definitely excited to read The Arrangement after really enjoying her earlier novels The Big Love and Secrets to Happiness (click to read my reviews). The Arrangement has an intriguing premise: a suburban couple, Lucy and Owen, with an autistic 5 year-old and a happy if boring marriage, decide to liven things up by opening their marriage for 6 months. They agree to certain ground rules: no questions asked, no one they know, and no falling in love. What can go wrong?

The Arrangement is a smart, funny and well-written book. Dunn has a good sense of humor and an even better sense of what it’s like to be a suburban middle-aged parent, especially to a special needs child (she has one herself). Beekman, NY, where Lucy and Owen live, appears to be an idyllic destination for parents reluctantly leaving Brooklyn, but it’s a small town with its own share of tensions and pressures. And Lucy and Owen’s marriage, while not perfect, is a familiar one. They are pretty exhausted, with little emotional time for each other.

I loved this passage about how Lucy has given up certain (optional?) aspects of her life over time:

Perfect.

Dunn’s characters are memorable, from the eccentric billionaire in Beekman on his third wife, to the partners Lucy and Owen decide to spend “the arrangement” with, to the town’s transgender kindergarten teacher. Dunn is insightful and empathetic, and I laughed out loud and nodded in recognition often while reading The Arrangement.

Sarah Dunn is three for three, in my opinion. When is her next book coming out?

MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers

We had an April meeting on the calendar for our mother daughter book club, but due to busy schedules, we had to cancel. I decided to read the book anyway: Monster by Walter Dean Myers.

Steve Harmon is a 16 year-old boy who is in detention in NY city jail awaiting trial. He has been accused of taking part in a felony murder – specifically, acting as the lookout for a drugstore robbery that ended with the owner being killed. As part of a way to deal with his stress and anxiety, Steve decides to tell the story of the trial and his incarceration in the form of a screenplay for a movie. He includes the dialogue and camera notes – close ups, flashbacks, etc.

The screenplay format is an interesting way to tell this story, and it’s very effective in Monster. There is some ambiguity over whether Steve actually did what he is accused of, and the format of the book allows Myers to get away with not really resolving it. There are moments of first person narration in the journal entries that punctuate the chapters, but most of the book relates the courtroom proceedings as they happen.

There’s a lot of stress in the book, as Steve talks about the violence in jail, his fears about his future, and the sadness he sees in his parents’ faces when they come to visit him. Myers did a lot of research interviewing inmates, and it shows. He includes a lot of detail about what it’s like to be young and scared in jail, awaiting your fate as a jury decides whether they believe you or what your lawyer has argued. It’s a difficult topic, to be sure, and I wonder how our group would have liked it. There’s also a bit of legalese in it, but not too much. I am definitely glad I read it, and I would like my daughters to read it at some point so that we can discuss it.

Monster provides a creative and compelling perspective on a world that most teenagers never experience. I found it to be a worthwhile read that made me think about my own biases and the conclusions I might have drawn were I in the courtroom – fair or not.