Month: November 2021

by Forrest Carter

Story of a young boy who is left orphaned and raised by his grandparents in Appalachia. His grandmother is Cherokee and his grandfather half Cherokee. They live in a small house up on a mountainside, with a bunch of hound dogs that protect their corn patch and trail foxes (for amusement). They mostly live off the land, gathering herbs, acorns and wild greens, hunting deer, catching fish etc. But the grandfather also makes whiskey in an attempt to earn some cash, and young Little Tree is learning this skill. Something I never thought I’d read the details of, making moonshine! Most of the story takes place while Little Tree is six years old (he seems older than that though), and there’s other stories told by visitors and friends, or shared family history. The kid does his best to learn what his grandparents teach him- not only to live off what the land gives them, but also to read (his grandmother reads Shakespeare from the library, and has him studying the dictionary) and do simple math. He’s pretty well taught for a kid who’s never gone to school, but when out in public with his grandfather- at the store, on the bus, or sitting in church- it’s apparent that the white folks around them look down on his family for being poor in material goods, for going barefoot or wearing deerskin clothing. Although the kid himself never really catches on that he’s being mocked. Different kinds of people come to their little house- those representing authorities that don’t have good interests at heart, are given the runaround (in some very hilarious scenes). Relatives, friends, and one Jewish peddler however, are welcomed into their home, and Little Tree learns compassion, patience, and other bits of wisdom from them.

Things happen, up and down the mountainside, and I was settling into the rhythm of their days, the picture of life in the backwoods this gave me, when suddenly authorities find out this kid is living with his grandparents and not in school. They pull him out of his home and send him to a religious boarding school. Where things are very unpleasant and oppressive, to say the least. I’m glad the kid made it out of there, but the ending had me feeling really sad.

This book brought two others to mind while I was reading it: Where the Red Fern Grows (because of the hound dogs) and Where the Lilies Bloom (the setting and overall style). But once again, it’s one that makes me grit my teeth when I look about online after and learn some facts. When this book was first published the author said it was autobiographical. Nope. He’s not even Native American. Before I was aware, I was enjoying the read and thought it a good story, but now I cringe at the things I didn’t question in the narrative, that are so blatantly wrong or stereotypical. Have to read with  doubt in mind now: American Indians in Children’s Literature made me aware of some issues with this one. I feel like I should remove it from my personal collection.

Rating: 2/5
216 pages, 1976

by Ella Cara Deloria

Slice-of-life novel about Sioux people in the nineteenth century, when encroaching white men were just a rumor on the land. It is a very detailed look at their lifestyle, from the women’s perspective. Most of the story is about the duties of relationships, how the children were raised, how a woman’s life was shaped by the relatives that surrounded her, and how that shifted when she married. The narrative is rather dry in style, but not without some tenderness, humor and tragedy- though sometimes you have to read between the lines to pick it up. The central character is Waterlily- from her birth while the camp is relocating, through her years growing up, to her own marriage and finally having her first child. Her personality is contrasted by that of various other young girls- cousins and friends (some of whose behavior is frowned upon). She is conscious of always striving to honor her family by doing the right thing, giving gifts when it is expected, showing deference to men and elders. An important aspect of their society was the gift giving, so that goods did not belong to any one person for long, but made the rounds continually through the community. She listens to stories of her people’s past, watches ceremonies from the sidelines (including the Sun Dance, that was interesting as I had only vaguely heard of it before), and tends the younger children.

Then a certain young man catches her eye, but it’s not proper for a young woman to chase after a man, she has to indicate her interest subtly, if at all. Meanwhile she’s expected to accept a different young man from another group who asked for her in marriage, because it will enable her parents to honor someone else they’re indebted to. She does what is expected of her and moves to the other camp, where she doesn’t know anyone at all. They are kind and welcoming, but she always feels constricted by formalities among them. Waterlily is relatively content though, and looks forward to building a life with her new husband. Then someone brings blankets into camp, that foreign soldiers had dropped on a path. The blankets are coveted as a novelty item, and in the traditional gift-giving are passed around from family to family. Then many of them start to fall sick, with what sounds like smallpox. There are many deaths, in spite of their efforts to slow the spread of the disease (which they realized too late). Waterlily is soon bereft of her husband, afterwards feels even more alone in the camp. She finds means to travel back to her parents’ camp, where to her surprise, another man soon approaches her with thoughts of marriage. In this second match she is more at ease, and finds contentment and gradually, a secure feeling of joy.

I thought some of the most interesting parts in the story were when Waterlily and her companions first heard of the white men. They were fascinated with the curiosity of men having pale hair and blue eyes, and shocked when they heard that white parents yelled and hit their children to make them behave (this was from someone observing a few white families that lived in a fort). Another episode that really struck me happened when Waterlily was a small child. She was alone in the tipi in the care of her blind grandfather, stealthily got out some very rich food that was kept hidden, and ate way too much of it which made her sick. When the family found her semi-conscious they seriously feared for her life (thinking that fainting would bring on death). She recovered the next day and they made an elaborate ceremony to celebrate how her life had been spared! They really treasured their children, and worked very hard to live in harmony with everyone around them.

This book in tone is rather like Once Upon an Eskimo Time. It’s not the easiest read, doesn’t have a lot of plot or exciting events, mainly being just a detailed account of everyday life. The author was part Sioux- her father was a Yankton Dakota and her mother was of French, German and English heritage. She grew up on the Standing Rock reservation and became a linguist and educator, spent much of her life working to record Native American legends, oral history and language. So none of the accuracy issues here that I had with the previous read. Far from it!

Rating: 3/5
244 pages, 1988

More opinions: Dear Author
anyone else?

by Oliver La Farge

Set in the year 1915, in the Navajo nation. Laughing Boy is a young man attending a large gathering where there are dances, horse races, trading and gambling. He’s excited to compete with his favorite pony and make some good trades, but something momentous happens when Slim Girl catches his eye. He’s fascinated by her bold behavior, when she speaks to him directly (something a proper girl would never do) and on impulse, they decide soon after to run off and get married. Laughing Boy hears rumors from others and faces criticism from his family about Slim Girl- she’s bad they say. She’s not a proper Navajo. He doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. Slim Girl had been taken away by the Americans when she was a little girl, sent to a boarding school where her language and culture were forbidden (to put it mildly). She is full of bitterness against the Americans and desperately wants to rejoin The People. She sees her union with Laughing Boy as a way back in, and for a time, this seems to work. They set up a little household together on the outskirts of a small dusty American town, where Slim Girl has a job she doesn’t want to leave, quite yet. I was surprised after closing the final pages, to think back and realize how much Slim Girl reminded me of Scarlett in some aspects! She wanted security, wanted to earn and save up money so she and Laughing Boy could return with wealth to live among the Navajo among respect and admiration. Unfortunately, her means to that goal were also her undoing.

There were many parts of this story I really enjoyed. Reading of this young couple’s determination to flaunt the norms- Laughing Boy ignoring all the whispers about his wife and refusing to believe any ill of her, certain they were wrong and that he could make a happy home. Slim Girl’s stubborn desire to learn skills that were taken for granted by other Navajo women and she struggled with- mainly weaving, but other things as well. Their joy in each other, and the complications that arose when doubts crept into their relationship, becoming a gap they struggled to repair. The one thing I felt dubious about was the casual mention of Slim Girl’s years in the boarding school. While it was obvious she was somewhat traumatized and turned callous by that experience, I felt like it could have been dealt with in much greater depth. Perhaps it was written this way though, because most of the story is told from Laughing Boy’s perspective, and he never really understood what an impact that experience had on her.

This book won a Pulitzer in 1930. Sadly, it’s one of those that I feel dismayed about, when looking up more info after I’m done reading. The author is not Native American, he wrote from outside the culture, though he spent several years working in Navajo territory, and admired them greatly. But it sounds like he got a lot of it wrong: American Indians in Children’s Literature. Regardless, I still think it’s a good story, I’m just disappointed it’s got false portrayals. (And I would really like to know what aspects of the culture were inaccurate here, but I haven’t done the info digging to find out yet).

Rating: 4/5
302 pages, 1929

More opinions:
The Blue Bookcase
Musings
anyone else?

by Gail Honeyman

I really liked this book, and read it fairly quickly, although as some readers point out, it does have questionable inconsistencies. I didn’t really notice them while I was reading though, as I felt engrossed in the character’s viewpoint, interested to find out what had happened to her, and what her future would turn into. Rather like in Convenience Store Woman, the main character here is an eccentric who doesn’t fit into social norms. The comparison ends there, though. While I felt pretty sure that Keiko Furukura was autistic, this story is written as if the character’s oddities are due to her upbringing. I’m not sure if the author meant for her to have a mental illness or cognitive difference that her misfortunes exacerbated, or if she was suggesting that trauma was the main cause. Simply put: Eleanor is odd. She speaks formally, has rigid habits, avoids social gatherings, has huge gaps in her understanding of popular culture, and doesn’t recognize when others are making jokes at her expense. She’s fairly good at her office job and keeps telling herself that everything is just fine.

But it’s not. Eleanor is avoiding thinking about her painful past- and doesn’t want to discuss it when others bring things up or ask questions. She only happens to meet her co-worker Raymond from IT when he comes to fix her computer one day, and by chance they’re both outside when an elderly man collapses on the street and needs emergency assistance. They help the stranger, visit him in the hospital together, later start meeting for lunch, gradually become friends- and things start to change in Eleanor’s life. She wants to learn how to fit in, to maintain a facade of normalcy if she can, but her attempts are often downright funny and awkward. And her stress and fear when memories of the past arise, make the reader very sad. I’m glad this book didn’t dwell on the horrific incidents of her childhood. Too many stories about abused children go into a lot of detail that’s difficult to read. This story instead, is about what happened to an adult who survived, how it affected her adult life, and how she tried to change things, with the help of some kind people who looked past her weirdness and turned out to be good friends.

It moves really quickly through some aspects of her recovery, and I wouldn’t have minded the story being longer to give that more of a proper timeframe. I did think the whole scenario of Eleanor fixating on a performing musician as a love interest who would solve all her problems, very strange. It didn’t make sense to me until much later in the book, why she would have that kind of unrealistic, almost obsessive crush on a stranger. On the other hand, I really loved the inclusion of a cat in the story, who shows up near the end. It made me smile so much.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
328 pages, 2017

translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

by Sayaka Murata

I really liked this book. I was surprised how short it was, so concise. I didn’t get far when I immediately agreed with the conclusion of many other readers: the main character, Keiko Furukura, appears to be on the autism spectrum. She’s always struggled with social interactions and her behavior as a child often drew concern and criticism from other parents. She sees her actions as perfectly logical, and doesn’t understand why her family wants to “cure” her. At eighteen, she gets a job in a convenience store that seems to fit her perfectly. She likes the order in the store, the clearly laid-out rules for tasks and what to say to customers. She’s pleased to have a place where she knows exactly what to do and how to fit in. Even parrots the phrases and inflections of others around her, and sneaks peeks at brand names on her female co-workers’ clothing tags, to figure out casual wear. She’s relatively happy working there, for over a decade.

But family and friends from school- all grown now and with their own husbands and children, ask her uncomfortable questions when they visit together. When will she get a real job? or a boyfriend? Keiko doesn’t understand why she needs those things. She has no interest in relationships with men. But she feels that this is another area where she needs to fit in, or be further ostracized. So she takes in a rather shiftless fellow as a border- thinking the appearance of having a man in her life will satisfy others. At first this seems to work out. But then things start changing in her life, more expectations are thrown at her, and her neatly ordered life is no longer so tidy.

So glad I read this one. It made me laugh and think and I only wish it had been longer. Not only did it present a from-the-inside look at one woman’s quiet and nonconforming lifestyle (why shouldn’t she keep her routine and job, even though others looked down on it?), but one of the other characters seemed to be Hikikomori, I don’t know if he was supposed to be one, but he reminded me of them.

I’m reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine next, which seems to have a similar kind of misfit character. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
164 pages, 2016

by Svetlana Chmakova

This one’s set in the same middle school as Awkward and Crush. The main character is a kid called Jensen, and there’s side characters that I recognize from the other books. It was nice to see them from other perspectives. Jensen is kind of introverted, a dreamer who’s interested in science, fantasizes about space adventures and making great discoveries- or saving the world from zombies and sunspots, ha ha. He struggles with math though, which makes his dream of one day being an astronaut seem unreachable, and other kids tease him (about his weight, and his sunspot obsession). Jensen is pretty easygoing, he mostly just keeps his head down and tries to avoid two boys who pick on him in the hall. He pictures his day as a video-game like obstacle course, a series of challenges to overcome on the way to a goal (the visuals for this are fun). But then Jensen gets involved with the newspaper team- and a “social experiment” they’re doing which includes raising awareness of bullying. They set up an interview with Jensen, asking him questions about how bullying has affected him, and he’s shocked: he never considered the teasing from other kids was actual harassment. He thought it was okay because “they’re my friends”. Newspaper girls’ handouts about bullying make him rethink everything. Are those kids he sits with at lunch really friends, when they constantly make jokes at his expense? He starts to see interactions between other kids in a new light- girls making fun of each other’s clothes, for example. Decides he has to do something, to make it stop. It’s hard to get up the nerve, though. Meanwhile there’s other things going on- struggles to do a group project when he has no knowledge of or interest in the topic (and feels intimidated by his group partner Jorge), gradual improvements in his math skills, weathering a bout of the flu, and finding himself in the middle when friction rises between the art club (his regular group of friends) and the newspaper kids (new friends). In the end, it was really pleasing to see how this character became aware that something wasn’t right, and he made an effort to stand up for himself, even though it was a scary move. I especially liked the final panels, where Jensen shows compassion towards one of the kids who used to pick on him. He had a big heart.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
248 pages, 2017

More opinions: Pages Unbound
anyone else?

by Margaret Mitchell

It’s kind of intimidating to sit down and write thoughts about Gone with the Wind. A hefty novel, but close on the heels of the beast that was Tom Jones, I actually enjoyed this one! Very readable. The story carried me through the pages much quicker than I expected. All the conversations felt quite natural, the historical bits were interesting, wow I learned so much about the Civil War and Georgia in particular. Although when it got into politics my attention faltered, but that never lasted for more than a few pages, as Scarlett herself was bored by politics, so her mind skittered on to other things, too, ha.

This deeply felt saga all swirls around Scarlett O’Hara, daughter of an Irish immigrant father and mother from a refined family. Scarlett grows up in comfort, surrounded by beauty and prosperity, never thinking of much except commanding the attention of boys, or who’s got nicer clothes. Exactly the kind of person I would never get along with in real life, but so intriguing to read about. She shrugs off rumors of war at first, but when it finally happens, everything falls apart around her. Gradually, at first. Men discussing and arguing the maneuvers. Young men leaving, some never return. Material goods in short supply or very expensive. Older men enlisted when casualties deplete numbers in the ranks. Horrific stories of the ugliness of war. Scarlett loves the plantation her father owned but moves to Atlanta, for a long visit that becomes an extended stay that turns into years of living there. She helps with the war effort, resenting it but feeling obliged. Descriptions of nursing soldiers in the war hospital- more horrors. When Atlanta is besieged, she flees back to Tara with a handful of companions- to find the land razed, houses around her burnt to the ground, animals stolen or driven off, nothing left to live on. She literally faces starvation and is desperate to find a way to survive, no matter what the cost.

That deep fear never leaves her, even when things get better and the South starts to recover. Recover, but things will never be the same. I didn’t know, before, how much of this story would be about the rebuilding, the reforming of people’s lives when so much had been broken by the war. About how the economy was affected, how the rich people of society now lived in poverty but were proud of the sacrifices they had made, how newcomers came in to profit off the rebuilding, and so on. Scarlett grabs opportunities and is seriously frowned upon by others because her actions are “unladylike”. I had to admire her determination to never feel want again, to have security and even prosperity once more. I also felt some sympathy for her constant misunderstanding of other people, her bafflement at what society deemed proper behavior or how other people’s assumptions did not at all match hers (even those closest to her). But at the same time I did not like her very much. She did mean things to people who trusted her, just to get her way.

That’s the biggest part of the story, this tangled bitter love affair. From the very beginning, Scarlett has her heart set on a young gentleman named Ashley, who is a very bookish man. He struggles when times get hard, because he doesn’t know how to actually make a living, to work a trade, and he never really adjusts. Scarlett seems to admire him simply because he seems unreachable, she can’t really understand him and obstinately wants what she can’t have. When Ashley marries Melanie (because he’s far more perceptive than Scarlett and realizes they wouldn’t be good together) she actually ends up living in their household for years! I found that very strange. Meanwhile there’s this other guy, Rhett Butler, who is a rouge but an honest man for all that. Like Scarlett, he does what he pleases, but he makes no excuses and doesn’t care what society thinks of him. Honest to himself, I guess you would say. He can see right through Scarlett and bides his time until she will accept him- but Scarlett makes a mess of that, too. (It’s also appalling how much she ignores her own children, but that’s another topic altogether!)

Really it was fascinating seeing how well-drawn these characters were, how complicated their interactions, how curious their motives, what a commentary on the society that shunned or accepted them by turns. Then there’s all the stuff about slavery. This book is so romanticized in that regard. Protests all over the place that slave owners took good care of their “darkies” who were like children and needed them. Claimed that stories of runaway slaves being hunted by bloodhounds or savagely beaten were exaggerated. No qualms about separating married couples, or selling parents / children separate from each other though. Really it made me grit my teeth and think: they were treated like animals. And even when the text was trying to make it sound like this system that made the profits of huge plantations possible was okay, the degrading language, racial comments and insulting ways black people were described- just shameful.

If anything, at least it did give me an idea of how Southerners came about their viewpoint. I was able to see another perspective, even if I don’t agree with it, or even think it was depicted accurately. Again, so much I could say about this book, so much I’m not even hinting at, but I’m getting over a headcold and don’t have a lot of energy to write more. It did make me want to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that’s next on my list of chunksters to attempt. (I wonder if Gone with the Wind was written in reaction to it- the characters mention Uncle Tom’s Cabin and criticize its negative portrayal of slavery!)

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
960 pages, 1936

More opinions: the Worm Hole
anyone else?

Wasn’t sure what to call this one, as the puzzle box has no title. Nor a company or brand name, much less an artist. It just says “made in China” somewhere, that’s it. And a grid of red letters in one corner,

which I realized shows you where these cheat guides align on the back:

It made sifting through the box to pick out pieces by similar colors etc. pointless, as the red letters distracted me. So I spread them all out on the table, at the start. Another annoyance: all the pieces have exactly the same cut. More than once I had pieces fitted in the wrong spot.

It has serious quality issues. When I first opened the box, I had to separate many many pieces that were still adhered together, and left tiny bits hanging. Also they’re very thin. More like a few layers of cardstock pressed together, than cardboard. I actually had to be careful to avoid brushing my sleeve across the puzzle in progress or pieces would all get pushed out of place, they fit so loosely. Sigh.

But: I like the picture.

My husband looked over my shoulder: “Well, that’s very un-realistic,” he said and I know what he meant: cute young animals sitting together as if for a group photo. Either the original was a digital painting, or the printing slightly blurred. I find it charming in spite of that. I bought it secondhand, but will definitely avoid this type of puzzle in future. Even the box was cheap and flimsy- I reinforced it by gluing a layer of stiff paper inside, shouldn’t feel like I had to!

Assembly below. For several sittings at the beginning I had four top edge pieces in the wrong spot, which put everything out of alignment! But once I got used to handling it gently and keeping my sleeves folded up, I did enjoy putting this together, got into the “puzzle mode” and will probably be disappointed when in future it starts to fall apart or get damaged after several re-workings. (Already quite a few knobs were bent, layers of paper torn, and I had to glue over a dozen pieces that had layers peeling apart straight out of the box). It’s 1,000 pieces:

by Svetlana Chmakova

Set in the same middle school as Awkward, this graphic novel has a different cast of characters. It’s from Jorge’s viewpoint- a guy who somewhat unwillingly has become known as “the sheriff” among the other kids at school. Simply because he’s bigger than the other boys, and steps in when he sees kids getting picked on- the bullies always back down, feeling intimidated. But there’s so much more to Jorge- he’s a really good guy, just doesn’t talk much. And when a certain girl is around, he finds himself even more tongue-tied. The reader gets to see his inner narrative as Jorge is annoyed at others pulling pranks or sidestepping responsibilities, his confusion at what he feels about the girl, his desire to just be able to talk to her- or get her phone number- or figure out what he’s supposed to do next when he finally asks her to a school dance! Meanwhile he’s navigating all this drama stirred up by his friends- one kid who caves when a popular jock vies for his attention and manipulates situations, girls having petty disagreements with their boyfriends, a group chat that goes awry and paints Jorge as the bad guy. It gets kinda complicated but all turns out alright in the end. I was glad to see some of the naysayers and weasels get caught out, and the kids who meant well finally getting noticed for that.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
240 pages, 2018

More opinions:
Pages Unbound
anyone else?

by Kat Leyh

This was great. In fact I liked it so much I read it all over again before sitting down to write here. It’s about a fierce, somewhat sullen kid who gets picked on in school for being different- she’s rough around the edges but so determined just to be herself. She lives in a trailer park and becomes friends with a boy next door who is quite her opposite- he likes glitter and pink nail polish and eventually through the arc of the story comes to feel comfortable wearing skirts and being called Lulu instead of Louis. Which is presented as just a side detail but so easily woven into the narrative. (And they love watching horror movies together.) For her part, Snapdragon (named after her mother’s favorite flower) is getting to know this old lady in the woods who lives in a creepy house and isn’t at all upset that people call her a witch- it keeps them off her porch so to speak. She rescued Snap’s dog, so when some schoolkids find a dead possum and Snapdragon gathers up the orphaned babies, she takes them to the witch. The old lady promises to care for the little possums (or rather, teach Snap how to do so) if Snapdragon will help in with her work. Which is gathering roadkilled animals, burying them to let nature clean them down to bones, and then reassembling the skeletons to sell online. Snap is so awestruck by how creepy and scientific this is. She’s eager to help, but even more amazed when finds out the old lady actually is a witch as the town rumors her to be. Except not in the way people guess. More in a way that honors the dead animals’ spirits.

So much to this book I can’t tell it all (nor would I want to). It surprised me at nearly every turn. And I don’t usually like stories that have ghosts or magical realism (I think that’s how you’d categorize this one)! More of a surprise is the connection Snap’s family history has with the witch. Easy inclusion of many difficult topics and non-conforming people. Not the least of which, Snapdragon is bi-racial, turns out the witch is a lesbian and her grandmother was bisexual. Her mom has a nasty ex-boyfriend who comes around and threatens people, her dog looses a leg . . . etc.

I just loved Snap’s character. And the possums! And get this, my kid’s favorite scene in the book is when Snap goes with her mother (who works long hours and is studying to be a firefighter) to a bookstore. Snap picks out a technical-looking book on comparative anatomy and when the shop lady sweetly says “oh, honey this isn’t a nice book for little girls- we have a lot of cute books about animals!” Snap and her mother both scowl, her mother firmly insists she’ll buy the book, and Snap eagerly absorbs information and facts from it all the way home. Ha!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5
240 pages, 2020

DISCLAIMER:

All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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