This week in books.

So many books this week! I’m reading lots of young adult literature for teaching prep. But also for fun. Shall we?

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2007. Alexie’s book talks about life in Wellpinit, a community within the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie absolutely refuses to romanticise life for indigenous peoples made to live on reservations. Junior (the book’s narrator) navigates the conflicting desires to remain a part of his community while also escaping its poverty, alcoholism, death, domestic violence, and feelings of hopelessness at the same time that he deals with the loneliness of being an outsider in both the white high school he attends outside the reservation and his community — many of whom regard him as a traitor. He also recounts the endless racism he experiences both from people he encounters at school and visitors to Wellpinit.

The book is heartbreaking but Junior’s narrative voice is masterfully witty and sardonic and accompanied by the comics he (but really Ellen Forney) draws as a way of responding to, thinking through, and coping with his life. So the novel also extremely funny and ultimately very very hopeful at the same time that it’s so so sad. Basically you’re laughing and crying at the same time. It’s my favourite book so far (welll, maybe tied with Catwings).

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. New York: Yearling, 2001.

We’ve all read this before, right? After reading it this time around I would guess that enduring appeal of it is the way it so accurately and complexly writes children’s behaviour — and there’s a lot of grey area around who’s ‘right’. Although the narrative sympathies ultimately lie with Harriet it’s also hard not to see her attitudes to her classmates — and people generally — as often hurtful (though she does learn the harmful effects words can have and the necessity of taking responsibility for that harm in the end, so I guess it’s all okay in the end?). Harrison Withers’s cats tho’! Living the dream.

Horvath, Polly. Lord and Lady Bunny — Almost Royalty. Illus. Sophie Blackall. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2014.

I tried to like this one but it ultimately left me feeling frustrated. It’s cute and silly but I found it really hard to locate a point to a lot of its humour. At times it seems to be mocking different versions of wives as social climbers, flighty and obsessed with fashion, nagging, etc. At other times it’s making fun of hippies, suburbanites, J.K.Rowling, and academics, and I just couldn’t figure out what the jokes were ultimately trying to say. It’s a nice light read but a little bit disappointing.

Hughes, Monica. The Keeper of the Isis Light. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000.

A really well-paced story with a somewhat sad (but ultimately satisfactory) ending. Olwen, the keeper of the Isis Light (a lighthouse intended send back information about the planet Isis to Earth, and ultimately to guide settler ships to the planet) is a pretty great independent lady protagonist too.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Catwings; Catwings Return; Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings; Jane on Her Own. Illus. S.D. Schindler. New York: Orchard Books, 2006.

These books so perfectly capture what cats are like (and what flying cats would be like) that my heart broke constantly while reading them. Catwings are little love letters to cats and are maybe the most perfect and adorable stories of all time.

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

I really wanted to like this book because everyone I know seems to love it and it’s so important as a post-colonial text but I really couldn’t. Far far far too much sexual violence in the first hundred pages — and without any real purpose except to make the male characters learn or feel something. And often normalised as part of a regular sexual relationship. I did love the concept of the narrative structure and the idea of the generations of solitude in the fated Buendia family. And I loved Ursula. I wish she was the real centre of the novel (she sort of takes over for a bit in the second half but I wanted far more time spent considering her thoughts and experiences).

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage, 1989.

I really detested this book. I find its pathologising of homosexuality as inherently misogynist, jealous, hedonist, sociopathic, and self-destructive to be really problematic and gross. I’m officially giving up on Nabokov at this point.

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Illus. Dušan Petričić. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2009.

Apparently this book is set in England?! I always thought it was set in Canada. Otherwise it’s exactly how I remembered it and very pointed in its mockery of parents who are dismissive and sometimes downright cruel to children. I’m particularly struck by the way this book — along with Harriet the Spy — breaks away from the model of representing parents as infalliable and children as disobedient/ungrateful.

White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. Illus. Garth Williams. New York: Harper, 2012.

So this book is still adorable, and also has really fascinating things to say about the environment, and life and death. But I found it really weird how Fern’s mother is so disappointed that she talks to animals and doesn’t like boys when she’s all of eight years old. It also seems really untrue to her character that she suddenly abandons Wilbur at the fair, just as he’s about the get his special award, because she wants to ride the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy. I get that it’s supposed to be representative of how she’s growing up, but she basically gets an entire personality shift in the space of a couple of days which feels very contrived.

Yep, Laurence. Dragonwings. HarperTrophy, 1975.

This is another book that is simultaneously very sad and very hopeful. Dragonwings is part of Yep’s Golden Mountain series and covers about five years in the life of Moon Shadow, from the time he sails to San Francisco from China at the age of eight through the San Francisco earthquake, and after. The book — as with all of Yep’s Golden Mountain books — represents the experiences of navigating a culture in which one is seen as an outsider. Moon Shadow relates the feelings of isolation and confusion he experiences before he learns English, the physical and verbal violence white adults and children inflict on him and his family, as well as the internal problems within the Tang community in San Francisco (that are themselves consequences of the already-long history of exploitation of the Tang people in America): poverty, drug addiction, and gang violence. But the story is really about his father’s dream of being a dragon once again and building an airplane (a decision which leaves him derided and ostracised by his extended family). That is, Yep’s novel refuses to ignore the violence of suffering that seems to have characterised the experience of Chinese people in America, but also refuse to reduce them merely to an experience of suffering.

Phew. I’m also reading some fairy tales for lecture prep, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and am about two-thirds through Brown Girl Dreaming (which is amazing!), but these will have to wait for next week.

24 May 2015


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