BOOKED by Kwame Anderson

41zviprzzyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our December Mother-Daughter book club read was Booked by Kwame Anderson. It’s the story of Nick, a seventh grader dealing with the demise of his parents’ marriage, a crush on a classmate, a budding soccer career and bullying.

What makes Booked interesting is that the story is told in verse. This style highlights Nick’s emotions and inner dialogue, which makes it all more poignant and genuine. What could have been a somewhat unremarkable litany of middle school woes becomes transformed into something lovelier. Nick’s father is obsessed with words – he even wrote a dictionary – and while Nick feels burdened by his father’s requirement that he read the dictionary, he too is a gifted linguist and finds power in expressing himself. He ends up joining a book club (because the girl he likes is in it) and finding some escape through reading as well.

Booked was a quick and interesting read, and our group of 7th graders found enough to talk about – what role did the quirky librarian play? Were the adults in Nick’s life paying enough attention to what he was going through? How did the use of poetry change their feelings about the book? What was in the mysterious dragonfly box? In the end it probably won’t be our most memorable book of the year, but for the verse alone it was a good choice.

We have identified a theme running through many of our book club books this year: kids being left to themselves to deal with some weighty problems, and adults generally being unaware and unhelpful. While this theme is a bit frustrating – we adults aren’t that bad! – it makes sense. How else to present adolescent protagonists who grapple and grow throughout the book? I am curious to see if this theme will continue into 2017.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters imagines an America where the Civil War never took place. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while fighting to abolish slavery, and modern day America is now made up of 46 states where slavery is illegal and 4 Southern states where it is not.

The narrator, Victor, was a slave in a meat processing plant in one of the Hard Four, and he managed to escape several years before the book opens. He was eventually caught in Chicago, but instead of going back to the factory, he made a deal with the U.S. Marshals: he’ll become a slavecatcher – someone who tracks down runaways – and has a chip inserted into his neck so that the government can always find him. He’s free, but not free. He’s a slave, but not a slave.

When Underground Airlines opens, Victor has been assigned to find a runaway in Indianapolis. As the case evolves, he discovers details missing that suggest that the man he is looking for – Jackdaw – is not the typical runaway slave. From there, Victor is drawn into an increasingly complex web of underground abolitionists, double agents, unethical government agencies and people willing to give up their lives to the cause of undermining the slave economy. He finds himself ultimately returning to the South and going back “behind the fence” to try to solve the case, although who he is working for – and whose directions he is following – shifts throughout the book, keeping the reader guessing.

I commend Winters on the creativity behind Underground Airlines. His depiction of institutionalized slavery is chilling and deeply offensive, but also sadly realistic. He included the fictional legislation ensuring slavery will continue legally into perpetuity, and also traced the global economic forces brought on by U.S. slavery and their ramifications throughout the 46 free states. I am always impressed with writers of dystopian fiction who are able to conjure up whole worlds different from our own and convey many layers and levels of those societies.

Victor was a complex and interesting character, and I also liked being in his head.

I am not a big fan of thrillers, so I wasn’t as crazy about the parts of the book involving escapes and gunfights and beatings and violence. Not my thing. It wasn’t gratuitous in Underground Airlines– slavery is violent – but again, not my favorite thing to read. That said, the violence was relatively contained so I was able to get through the book. I also had trouble tracking a few of the plot twists, but ultimately, I think I understood it. There’s a pretty big reveal at the end that explains why the stakes were so high in this particular recon mission, and I am proud to say that I followed it! Yay me.

I listened to Underground Airlines on audio, and the narration by William DeMerritt was SO good. His ability to transform realistically into so many different characters – white or black, young or old – was pretty amazing (though I didn’t love his narration of a female character named Martha). He did an excellent job with this book, conveying Victor’s anger, helplessness and intelligence as needed throughout the story, and like Victor, he never lost his cool or his consistency. I highly recommend the audiobook of Underground Airlines.

This was a pretty good read, overall. I am not sure I would have picked it up had I known it was as much a thriller as dystopian/moderately realistic fiction, but I am still glad I read it. Thought-provoking, especially at a time when so many of our institutions seem to be at risk.

NOT DEAD YET by Phil Collins

phil-collins-not-dead-yet-photoPhil Collins came out with his memoir, Not Dead Yet, this fall, joining a crop of rock bios that have been getting a lot of attention recently. I was a big Genesis/Phil Collins fan back in the 80s, so I was excited to get my hands on the audio version of Not Dead Yet.

Collins narrates the audio version, which enhances the sense of intimacy the listener feels with him throughout the book. It opens with his early days in suburban London and tracks his family life and his childhood/early adulthood obsession with music. From there, the juggernaut of Collins’ career kicks in: joining Genesis, touring larger and larger venues, taking over frontman status from Peter Gabriel, more Genesis albums, his explosive solo career, more Genesis albums, Disney soundtracks, hit movie songs, and on and on. There is a reason Phil Collins seemed ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s – he was. He was also a workaholic who couldn’t say no to any opportunity – to sing, to compose, to produce, to collaborate. He would travel the globe while on world tours, and then return to his home base where he would jump immediately into the next project without stopping.

This lifestyle took a toll on his personal life, which Collins does not gloss over. Three marriages, three divorces, long distance relationships with his five kids – these all weigh on Collins, and he perseverates on them throughout the book. He takes the blame for the failure of his marriages, though he manages to make himself look OK at the same time. Collins was criticized by the media when all of this was going on, particularly his delivering his request for a divorce from wife #2 via fax, and his affair with a woman half his age while on tour. Collins takes the blows here, for sure, but it’s clear that he is relieved to finally be telling his story.

He also shines a light on some other personal stuff, like his obsession with the Alamo and the physical ailments that plagued his later career, like an ear stroke that caused him to lose his hearing in one ear and the hand and back issues that put an end to his prolific drumming. The toughest section comes at the end, when Collins describes in painstaking detail his slide into alcoholism in the early 2010s and the terrible toll it took on his body and his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. On many occasions, I paused the audio to call up a song on Spotify or a video on YouTube, which definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.

Collins is apologetic about his ubiquity – almost overly so. He suggests that his transatlantic dual performances on Live Aid in 1985 were almost accidental, and he distances himself from the coincidence of having hit songs with two bands on the charts at the same time. He basically says, “I get it – I was sick of me too.” (Sometimes this is a little too much.)

Collins is clearly an emotional, complicated guy, and Not Dead Yet shows him in the most flattering light possible. I’m sure there are other sides to a lot of his stories (and in fact I heard a few of them at Thanksgiving dinner from someone who knows him), but I liked hearing (and believing) Phil’s version for 10 hours. I mean, that’s the point of a rock memoir, right? To clean up the reputation?

Collins’ albums have all been recently remastered, and if you listen to them on Spotify you get a new cover, a closeup of Phil’s sixtysomething face instead of the thirtysomething faces I remembered from the original covers. It’s kind of creepy, but it’s reality – our rock gods are aging. Not Dead Yet at least gave me glimpses of that younger guy, and for that I am grateful.

(And yes, I found out what “In The Air Tonight” is about. Not this:)

MY PICTURE PERFECT FAMILY by Marguerite Elisofon

5146laoj58l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Marguerite Elisofon and her husband Howard had boy-girl twins named Samantha and Matthew in 1990. The twins were premature, but Matthew developed normally while Samantha started lagging behind from an early age. After many rounds of testing, Samantha was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which changed the Elisofons’ lives in every possible way.

My Picture Perfect Family is a painstaking account of how the Elisofons – and particularly Marguerite – learned to accept that Samantha would never be the “picture perfect” daughter they had hoped for, and how they worked tirelessly to enroll her in programs and schools that would allow her to learn and even thrive. Marguerite’s patience and persistence saw Samantha through several New York City schools until she finally ended up at one that was committed to her intellectual growth. There are many ups and downs along the way: schools that decided that Samantha was too much for them, endless tantrums and disastrous family vacations, punctuated by small steps forward, unexpected breakthroughs and some surprisingly positive playdates. Through it all, Elisofon never gave up hope that her daughter would find a place that would encourage her and allow her to pursue the activities she loved – acting and singing.

As a mother of twins myself, I was particularly interested in how Samantha and Matthew related to each other over the years, and how Elisofon navigated balancing of attention between the two, even when one twin needed so much more intervention and involvement. She includes family photographs along the way, along with the backstory of what was happening that the camera didn’t capture.

My Picture Perfect Family is a dense, engrossing read. While it is quite detailed, it is never tedious. Elisofon is a skilled writer, laying out the complications in Samantha’s condition and treatment. And it ends on a hopeful note. Samantha graduates from high school and, like her brother, goes on to college. The book ends as she leaves for college, with only a brief epilogue talking about the years that followed.

I am glad I read My Picture Perfect Family. It’s a very poignant and powerful look at the challenges of raising an autistic child and the power of a stubborn, persistent parent who wants nothing more than her daughter to be happy and challenged.

 

WILLFUL DISREGARD by Lena Andersson

andersson_willfuldisregard-wquoteHere’s what happens in Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard: Ester, a young Swedish writer, is asked to write an article about Hugo, a famous artist. She meets him and within one week she is completely obsessed with him. Despite their age difference, they develop a close friendship which consists of long dinners spent debating philosophy and ideas. Ester’s obsession with Hugo persists as the weeks go by, and eventually, their relationship turns physical. Over the course of one week, they spend three nights together – Ester’s dream come true. And then Hugo turns cold and starts ignoring her.

The book tracks the ensuing twelve months – every interaction Ester has with Hugo, every text, every email, every ill-advised call.

Willful Disregard is the literary fiction version of He’s Just Not That Into You. It analyzes in painstaking detail the rollercoaster of Ester’s interactions with Hugo – the hope, the delusion, the fury, the rationalizations, the desperation. If you’ve ever suffered rejection from someone you were really into, then you will recognize much of what happens in this book. It’s beautifully written – translated from the Swedish – and while it might be too wordy or cerebral for some tastes, I enjoyed it.

Some passages I liked:

Her emotional life was now subject to the dissatisfaction of rising expectations. The only advantage of this is that after a time, the disappointment can turn into another law of nature, namely the delight that sinking expectations take in the tiniest possible detail.

She thought about the fact that seven billion people on earth did not have this reliance on hearing from him. Their health and wellness did not depend on it. So why did hers? There was no rhyme or reason to it. Why could she not feel the same toward him as the seven million did, living their lives with complete lack of concern for what he was engaged in? The girlfriend chorus said: Give up and leave this man. He’s doing you harm. The girlfriend chorus really didn’t understand. They were the seven billion.

I mean, it’s painfully familiar, right?

This is the book I was reading post-election, and for a few weeks it felt too small and inconsequential to keep my attention. But I came back to it and while I can’t say it lifted my spirits, I am certainly glad I read it. If it sounds appealing, give it a try – you won’t regret it.

THE ART OF NOT BREATHING by Sarah Alexander

Sadly, my month of non-reading continues. Hoping to snap out of it soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a review of our November mother-daughter book club book, The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander.

23203977The Art of Not Breathing is an odd, sad book. Elsie is sixteen and feeling very alone in her fractured family, which consists of her unhappily married parents, her older brother Dillon, and her twin brother Eddie, who died by drowning five years earlier. Elsie is convinced that her father blames her for Eddie’s drowning, and while she vaguely remembers that day, there are a lot of details that she can’t get a handle on. Why was Dillon there too? Did he try to save Eddie? What role did her parents play?

Elsie feels like an outsider in her family and at school too, but when summer comes, she accidentally falls in with a group of older boys who free dive, a rigorous sport involving diving to low depths and holding one’s breath before coming up. Elsie decides to try free diving, and her connection to the group of divers leads her to a boyfriend and, ultimately, the answers to her questions about Eddie’s death and the role she – and others – played in it. Meanwhile her family falls further apart as Dillon develops anorexia and her parents grow more estranged.

Dark, huh?

Yes.

The Art of Not Breathing is compelling in that it makes you want to read on and find out what happens. You also feel just terrible for Elsie, who is trying to hold things together but is breaking down inside. Her unwillingness to confide in anyone is frustrating, because it only makes her more isolated. But she is dealing with a lot – way more than someone her age should be expected to. Our group of twelve year-olds didn’t love this book (though it was recommended by someone in the group). They all found it very sad, and were frustrated with the adults and the situations Elsie was put in. We all found free diving intriguing but also scary. And of course, poor Eddie… the most tragic figure of all.

On the plus side, The Art of Not Breathing does send a message about being yourself and not caring what people think of you. It also conveys the importance of emotional trust, especially when dealing with grief.

 

 

Why I Am Not Reading Right Now

fc8a3eb0-400c-44d9-9378-d95b7a2e94acSo this is my first post since the election last week. I haven’t done much reading in that time, other than our November mother-daughter book club book, which I will review later this week.

It’s hard to concentrate on books right now. I find myself constantly cycling through the news and social media (which are increasingly becoming the same thing for me) looking for some sort of reassurance or relief, and finding none. The news seems to get worse and more hopeless every day, and the pillars I usually look to in times of uncertainty are slowly falling away – or expressing their own fears and concerns.

What is this country going to look like in 6 months? A year? Four? How worried should we be about our personal safety, not to mention the safety of our immigrants, the sick, the earth?

Living in DC, it’s hard to escape from the stress of this looming administration change, and frankly, I don’t think I *should* escape from it. I feel that it’s important to be vigilant right now, to watch what is happening like a hawk so that I am keenly aware of the dangers I see around us. Putting my head in the sand – or into a book – may provide an uneasy, temporary reprieve, but it won’t help me be an engaged, concerned citizen capable of doing something (but what?) to help stem the tide of disaster we appear to be riding.

I set a goal of reading 52 books this year – a book a week. I had ambitious plans for November and December to help get me to that goal – one that has eluded me for years. It’s looking less likely that I will get there. I will keep trying, but right now, reading isn’t serving its usual role of allowing me to focus and relax amidst a busy, multitasking day. It seems instead like an indulgent and likely ineffective distraction. And frankly, I am just too stressed out to concentrate.

Maybe I just need to give it a few more days?

Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take longer than that.