Book Reviews for February 2018
I’ll start my February book reviews with a confession. I didn’t read as much as I’d hoped. I lost prime reading time to Olympic coverage. (For the most part I enjoy the Olympics, but I feel guilty if I don’t watch, like it’s my duty as an American to cheer USA athletes in sporting events I know nothing about.)
Also, let’s not forget, February is the shortest month for reading and everything else.
These are my excuses.
Other than having a stack of “to-read” books on my bookcase and a queue of audio downloads, I don’t much plan my book reading in advance. Somehow, the books I read this month shared similarities in tone and mood. While the protagonists were as varied as our February weather—an orphan, a student, a best friend, a mother, a shell of a man—they all struggled to survive or find something lost.
From Civil War Arkansas, to the Golden Age of Hollywood and present-day Mississippi Delta, here we go…
Tale of a Civil War Orphan
by: Nancy Dane
Sarah Campbell follows the plight of a spunky girl who witnesses the death of her parents at the hands of bushwhackers. While the story is fictional, author Nancy Dane weaves historical Arkansas Civil War events into this chapter book for children. Battles and boat names are real. Many of the colorful characters Sarah encounters during her journey to and around Fort Smith are based on real people. In Sarah Campbell, Dane has respectfully highlighted the real predicament of Civil War orphans while maintaining the innocent spirit of a young girl.
C. S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Arkansas author Nancy Dane, who lives in Russellville, has written a good children’s story. Excellent in fact. Sarah Campbell won the 2016 Susannah DeBlack Award, an honor bestowed annually to a book that introduces young readers to Arkansas history. As a educational bonus, at the end of the book, Dane included a study guide, facts, and suggested activities for elementary school-aged students.
My favorite lines: Hens scratched the dirt, singing the song that contented chickens sing—at least it seemed like a song to Sarah. AND. Maybe there were good and bad people on both sides.
This book made me think of the American Girl books my daughter devoured. Now I want to write a children’s chapter book.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
by: Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the gritty story of a family haunted by death, meth, prison, and ghosts of the long departed and those who might as well be. Thirteen-year-old Jojo is self-appointed caretaker of his three-year-old sister because his mother is too distracted by drug demons to do much mothering. And for the majority of his thirteen years, his father has been absent, serving out a stint in jail. The first half of the story is skillfully told as the family travels to retrieve Jojo’s father from Parchman Farm, state penitentiary in Mississippi.
An uplifting story, this is not.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a full-out lament for a family lost. Or perhaps a family that never fully existed.
It’s worth mentioning that I listened to the Audible version of this book while driving through the Mississippi River Delta. Whoa. At times, the narration provided almost too flawless of a soundtrack to the flat, winter fields spreading around me. Author Jesmyn Ward brings the gothic South alive by putting words together in an affecting, tortured way. This is a story that will sit deep inside me for a long time.
Sing, Unburied, Sing won this author her second National Book Award.
Favorite Line: Growing up out here in the country taught me things. Taught me that after that first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants.
This book made me itch to read every single word this author has written. But first, I must recover.
Can one person truly make a difference? If so, what does it take? What does it look like? These are the questions I asked myself over and over as I read Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo. I imagine Michelle Kuo must have asked herself the same questions many times, too.
Fresh out of Harvard University, Kuo signed on to work with Teach for America. Her post? A place familiar to me—Helena, Arkansas. She arrived as a bright, enthusiastic, naive teacher eager to bring life-changing literature to the Arkansas Delta, a place as foreign to her as a lunar landscape.
What she found? Lost high school students who read at or below fourth grade level. A last-resort school with no budget. Entire families that had been left behind after the Great Migration. Kuo maintains the families of her students were worse off than before desegregation and the civil rights movement.
Bright, young teacher gets into the trenches to create real change—sounds a bit cliché, doesn’t it? It isn’t.
Reading with Patrick is the raw, real story of one human being’s willingness to help another. Kuo lays her own self-doubt on the page. After a disastrous first year in the classroom, she makes genuine strides during her second year. Students are reading, communicating, learning, bonding, laughing. Relationships are forming. One student in particular, Patrick, is becoming a class leader. He’s writing poetry, stopping fights on the school grounds, attending class daily.
Kuo is accepted to law school. She leaves the Delta half-heartedly convinced that as an attorney, she can do more for the greater good. Three years later, when she learns that Patrick has had been arrested and charged with murder, she returns to Helena. Kuo begins visiting Patrick in jail and tutoring him regularly. She makes it her mission to break the downward spiral of Patrick’s life through the one thing she’s always sought refuge inside. Books.
🎤Listen to KUAR’s episode The Delta, Full of Stars which includes an interview with author, Michelle Kuo, along with insight into the story and book, and fabulous music. Click HERE to listen.🎤
My favorite Line: I must have dreamed the poems we memorized because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.
This book made me think. Really think. I’ve always known my view of the Delta isn’t everyone’s view of the Delta, but man alive, this book drives it home.
Crossing to Safety
by: Wallace Earle Stegner
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Author, Wallace Earle Stegner managed to do just that. Sid and Charity Lang inherit their wealth early on. Larry & Sally Morgan struggle financially. The men are colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. The wives meet at an English department mixer. Crossing to Safety is a story about marriage and friendship. It’s about acceptance when life hands you difficulty. This reflective relationship tale begins during the Depression and spans a lifetime until the mid-1970s.
While reading this book, I was reminded of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road but without the anxiety and shock. The characters aren’t entirely likable, not all the time. Time passes. Choices become fewer and fewer. I enjoyed this story but I suspect some might be bored by the real-life nature of it.
My favorite lines: You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.
This book made me: think about lasting friendship and look up the phrase recherching temps perdu.
West of Sunset
by: Stewart O’Nan
In 1937, we find a dispirited Scott Fitzgerald working in Hollywood as a screen writer. His semblance of a family is scattered with Zelda having been committed to a sanitarium in North Carolina, and daughter, Scottie, away at school. Fitzgerald fights powerful alcohol demons while simply trying to write, to earn enough money to keep his head above water. He is deep in debt to his agent for work never delivered.
This is not the Scott Fitzgerald most of us know. In West of Sunset, O’Nan provides a glimpse into the last three years of Scott’s life. Gone is the Jazz Age glamour. In it’s place, Hollywood glitz seems just out of reach to Scott who remains haunted by past success. Throughout the story, there’s a sense that the pieces no longer fit together for Scott Fitzgerald, and they never will again, even while he brushes elbows with Humphrey Bogart, even when he runs into his frenemy, Ernest Hemingway, even when he falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, a strong woman who turns out to be his last great love.
Something I learned—Scott Fitzgerald worked on the script for Gone with the Wind. I particularly enjoyed the way this author wove history of movie-making and bits of little known film lore into the story.
I discovered this book via KUAR’s Arts & Letters program. Yes, Arts & Letters is becoming my new favorite book source! Before you read West of Sunset, Listen to A Million Lights on the Boulevard by clicking HERE. This is another great show providing insight into the author’s writing research and style, the life of Fitzgerald, and mystic of Hollywood scriptwriting.
My favorite line: Like an athlete, he had trained himself, day after day, and trusted that when he came to the arena he would naturally perform… When he was working, it worked. It was when he stopped that the world returned, and his problems with it, which was the reason he worked in the first place. He was a writer – all he wanted from this world were the makings of another truer to his heart.
This book made me load up my DVR with recordings of old Oscar movies to watch later.
That’s it for my Book Reviews for February 2018. Happy March reading! What’s on your bookshelf?
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.
Amanda Shires, You Are My Home