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Sarah’s Key

If you want to read a bestseller, just wait a few years after its hay day until it finds its way into Goodwills and used book stores. The book you are looking for is guaranteed to pop up, because it will be bought as gifts and recycled through office Christmas parties. If it’s sad? Even better, because people don’t tend to hang on to books that make them uncomfortable unless it also dramatically changed their world view. That’s why after I write this review, I’ll be doing the same and sending Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key to its next life by donating.

I picked up Sarah’s Key at a fancy Goodwill that printed labels for each item. I was drawn to the story because it reminded me of the books I used to be obsessed with in middle school–the stories of Jewish young women trying desperately to escape the fate of the Nazis. From Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars to The Diary of Anne Frank, even not too long ago I had dove into Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief–all of these works had been compelling for their glimpse into trauma and tragedy from the point of view of a child. With so much acclaim, Sarah’s Key seemed like the natural progression to reading more into the Holocaust genre of literature.

In One Sentence: A journalist must research the historic (and near undocumented) Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, in which French police arrested thousands of Jews to send to concentration camps, and ends up connecting to the story of a young girl who tried to escape to save her family.

Favorite Line: “What was wrong with being a Jew? Why did some people hate Jews? Her father scratched his head, had looked down at her with a quizzical smile. He had said, hesitatingly, ‘Because they think we are different. So they are frightened of us.’ But what was different? thought the girl. What was so different?” – p. 88

Review: Sarah’s Key has two parallel story lines: young Sarah as she escapes a camp outside of Paris to reunite with her brother who she has locked in the closet and Julia, a married woman who in discovering the story of Sarah also deals with a crumbling marriage. It’s an interesting structure to play with how the past can change us in unexpected ways. I loved every passage dedicated to Sarah’s story, and while the moments it spilled into Julia’s worked well–I never quite felt as captured by Julia’s journey. By the second half of the novel, it’s really all about Julia. In a way, I understand why. In many ways, Julia directly connects with the reader as she learns of Sarah’s story at the same time and her response helps the reader reflect on their own. On the other hand, it’s also like having a built in commentator. Julia’s perspective shapes how we understand Sarah’s. I completely understand why this book has so much praise, but I wouldn’t recommend this book against others in the genre that made me feel more connected to the protagonists.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: either Julia had taken another assignment or Sarah let her brother be captured.

More on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup:

Entrance to the Vel’ d’Hiv (The Winter Stadium) where Jews were detained en mass before being deported

NY Times: France Reflects on Its Role in Wartime Fate of Jews  (2012)

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King Dork

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There’s only a handful of required reading texts that actually relate and stick with high school students. Undoubtedly, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye should be on the top of the list. It’s a book people loved or hated, but either way anyone could get through in only a few sittings. (Unlike the much shorter, but denser, The Scarlet Letter.) And why is that? Because of the narrator, Holden Caulfield’s, clear, unapologetic voice.

The best young adult fiction is all about voice. I found Frank Portman’s King Dork, an “impossibly brilliant” “myspace generation” version of Catcher cult, at a Goodwill Bookstore. Besides the rave reviews, I was drawn to the nature of how the narrator’s voice read across the pages I skimmed. It was bold, youthful, authentic. And I was one who had loved Catcher; why wouldn’t I like this book too?

In One Sentence: Boy rebels against Catcher in the Rye rebellion.

Favorite Line: “[The Catcher in the Rye] is every teacher’s favorite book. The main guy is a kind of misfit kid superhero named Holden Caulfield. For teachers, he is the ultimate guy, a real dreamboat. They love him to pieces. They all want to have sex with him, and with the book’s author, too, and they’d probably even try to do it with the book itself if they could figure out a way to go about it. It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.” — pg. 12

Review: King Dork follows “Chi-Mo” through a high school year with a murder mystery, sex, battle of the band scenes, and more. He finds his father’s annotated copy of Catcher and attempts to decipher codes inside. At the same time, other shenanigans ensue.  It’s a fun story about a kid who’s struggling against all of the adults in his life, not unlike Holden Caulfield. The humor in the book works really well against “Chi-Mo’s” strong voice. It’s also an interesting contemplation at the end with the conclusions the narrator comes through — he asks the questions of what he learned and reflects on how people piece together their own perceptions to form new conclusions. There were moments that dragged, and while each new “band name” was funny, it’s hard for me to read about music. Kind of a taste thing. If you like Catcher, this book is a must. Though, it will probably take more sittings just because the tension doesn’t carry the same way it does in Salinger’s classic.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: “Chi-Mo” sparknoted.

Glossary:

The book had a glossary. Written by the narrator! An even better example of voice. Here is my favorite–

epigraph (a-PIG-rape):

an obscure quotations at the beginning of a book designed to make the author of the book seem smarter and more well-read than its readers. An epigraph that doesn’t make the reader feel confused, small, worthless, and stupid is an epigraph that has failed. Therefore, the best epigraphs have no discernible relationship to the contents of the books they adorn. 

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In Cold Blood

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If there was ever a staple in the true crime genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would be it. Well deserved, too. This book was in a college town’s Goodwill, which was lucky not just for it’s $1.99 price tag but also for the pages of notes and highlights I found while I read. My mother saw me pick out the book and nearly shuddered, “I don’t know why’d you want to read that. It’s scary.”

Her reaction made it more enticing. It was one of the few books I’ve bought on a bargain hunt that I immediately started reading when I got home. And is it any wonder? It’s tense, literary, undoubtedly spellbinding as advertised on the cover. After I finished, I wondered how Capote accomplished so much. All based in fact, but how much is true? Plus, the interesting part of this story is not really why did two strangers senselessly murder a family “in cold blood” — but actually what made the writer investigate this story? How did it change him afterward? 

In One Sentence: Two young criminals murder a family for no reason in a quiet Kansas town.

Favorite Line: “At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them — four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople,theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again — those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.” — p. 5

Review: From beginning to end, the details and prose of this piece are on point. Capote set the bar high with the idea of the non-fiction novel. Sure, there are the ever-present questions of credibility of scene and place but the story behind the creation of this book says enough as to Capote’s dedication to showing as complete an image as possible. (He spent years taking notes and doing interviews alongside writer-friend Harper Lee. Then again — he may have also been set on writing the masterpiece of his life.) Perhaps dramatic, perhaps clouded by his own biases, but it’s important nonetheless. The climax is in the full description of the gory details as opposed to the mystery behind the murderer as in the whodunit narrative. The reader knows how it’s going to end immediately. It’s still interesting and there’s more I want to find out. In an odd way, the only “truth” that is completely left out is the writer. Capote made himself a part of this case when he investigated the murder and got to know the culprits, Perry and Dick. Yet, he’s absent. There are long conversations and monologues taken from different people involved, but not a word on who they were talking to. I’m not sure it’s a problem, but it’s an interesting decision for a non-fiction writer trying to remain objective (and ultimately created it’s own mythology around the place of the writer as depicted in the film version, Capote.) Anyway, unless you are morally opposed to reading about violence, stop what you are doing and read this book.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: No one in Holcomb, Kansas spoke to Truman Capote.

The Influence of Short-Story Technique:

Truman Capote got his start writing short stories and credits the medium for allowing him to learn the art of control over story-telling. I loved this idea he explored in a Paris Review interview:

CAPOTE: … Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

INTERVIEWER: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

CAPOTE: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4867/the-art-of-fiction-no-17-truman-capote

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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There’s a reason why coming-of-age stories remain staples in literature. Whether it is through classic like Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Outsiders or modern tales such as Youth in Revolt — we read these books early or late in life, and either way when we are finished they stay preserved on our bookshelves. They are the books you read, and you see yourself. 

Did you know there are Goodwills EXCLUSIVELY for books? No clothes. No VCRs. Just books. I drove by one with my family off of Foothill Blvd between the Walmart shopping center and a closed tavern. I found about four or five books that cost about ten dollars total. One was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I had recognized the name from writer’s quotes and short stories, but had not read any of his novels.  It seemed like an interesting find – a funny novel filled with comics like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, except with more awards and, hopefully, poignancy.

In One Sentence: A junior high cartoonist leaves his Indian Reservation school for better opportunities at an all-white school.

Favorite Line: “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” – pg 13

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Review: A young boy has to deal with the natural struggle of identity but with the added complications of being the only Indian in an all-white school. He becomes the outcast not only in his new school, but also to his friends back home who see him as a  “part-time Indian.” Hilarious. Hard to put down. Totally inspiring in its ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time. This novel is all about voice. It masterfully captures the voice of the narrator and main protagonist, Junior. “Literary fiction” usually sets a certain expectation for a caliber of language, but there is also so much control and craft in a writer’s ability to create a convincing voice. Part of this success in Sherman Alexie’s novel is due to his own admittance that much of the text is auto-biographical, from his experience growing up on an Indian Reservation. I’ve come to discover that the best forms of art are not necessarily about a central theme or overall impact on society, but about honesty. Even in fiction, if I can feel a writer’s true intention and honesty – I’ll likely remember that book for the rest of my life. Everyone should read this book. Most importantly at schools where, unfortunately, it has been banned.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner if: People were more willing to look for things they had in common, rather than what made them different.

Banned: Throughout the country this book has been introduced into middle school curriculum, cursed by parents, and then swiftly banned (sometimes removed as required reading, other times taken out of libraries all together.) Why? The narrator, as a prepubescent boy, talks about masturbation. Watch Sherman Alexie’s reaction:

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