15 thoughts on “Reading MMXX

  1. The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

    Daniel, a young Jewish boy (teen?), consumed by hatred for the Roman occupiers, has been living with a group of men in the mountains, waiting to kick the Romans out of their homeland.

    Some thoughts off the top of my head:

    This would have been a really good novel to read during 7th or 8th grade at HBA. It’s fairly compelling story that also gives readers a sense of the way the Jewish law would impact daily life and the reasons why some Jews expected the Messiah to lead a political and military rebellion against the Roman Empire. I’m not sure the Bible teachers I’ve had could have done a better job of conveying these things.

    I enjoyed this.

    1. Her other Newbery winner, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, is even better. Not as overtly spiritual but some of the same forward-thinking themes.

    2. I’ll keep that book in mind…Well, I’ll try to. Thanks.

      By the way, a few more comments:

      –I liked the plausible and realistic portrayal of demon possession in this;

      –I thought Daniel’s emotional arc and his change in perspective was a bit abrupt at the end. It felt a little too rushed.

  2. Bruchko by Bruce Olson

    As a young, Chrisitian, Bruce Olson felt called to be a missionary in South America. He applied to the mission’s board, but was rejected. He still felt called, so with a few dollars he flew to Venezeula. This book is his story of his work with the different indigenous tribes, especially the Motilones. (“Bruchko” is how one of the tribes pronounced his name.)

    The story he tells is engaging filled with both grueling hardships and miracles. But what stood out most for me was Olson’s approach to proselytizing–namely, he worked through the existing culture of the tribes, respecting it, not trying to tear it down and replace it a more Western one. One example of this involved a breakout of pink eye in one of the villages. Olson had the If his descriptions are accurate, I have a lot of respect for his methods. For example, a outbreak of pink eye occurs in one of the villages. Olson has the antibiotics for it, but he’s wary that if he uses it the witch doctor’s status will be destroyed, creating hostilities between Olson and the tribe. Olson solution is to work through the witch doctor. He eventually intentionally gets the pink eye and then asks the witch doctor to use the medicine he has along with her chants. It works, and the witch doctor proceeds to do the same with the villagers. In Olson’s telling, the tribe and witch doctor not only embrace the medicine, but they begin accepting better hygiene practices Olson recommends–again, they integrate the hygiene with existing rituals and practices.

    Olson does similar things when witnessing to the Motilones. He uses their existing metaphors and myths to explain Christianity, and he doesn’t attempt to change the way they dress, how they worship, etc.

    I should note that the book is based on Olson’s recounting of what happened. I hate to express any level of skepticism, but missionaries have a checkered history. I believe they have done many good things, but it’s not all positive.

  3. Empire State – A Love Story (or Not) by Jason Shiga (2011)

    Jason Shiga’s Empire State is a graphic novel reminiscence of a bus trip from Oakland to New York City, told episodically in a manner best left to the reader’s discovery.  Jimmy aspires to a high-tech career, but he feels trapped in Oakland by familial expectations, a lack of worldliness, and seemingly minimal ambition.

    He finds motivation to venture outside the Bay Area when his best friend Sara takes an internship with a New York publishing house.  With romantic notions of seeing the country and romantic notions of confessing his love, he purchases a bus ticket rather than a flight, thinking a bus ride will truly let him experience the country along his way.

    Although I find the narrative to be tone-perfect, I’m also a romantic 51-year-old never-married English major who got on a plane in his twenties to propose to a woman.  Others may find the story unsatisfying, the way even great short stories can feel incomplete.

    Where Empire State scores best is with an overall slacker, angsty mood.  References to Dreamweaver and Sleepless in Seattle set the era.  Sequences of wordless scenery provide the uncomfortable mundanity of aimless, post-college existence many of us remember as we contemplated stepping into a dreadful world inherited from boomer yuppies.

    If you or a friend had a freshly printed college diploma in the mid-to-late 90s and a McJob shelving books in the local library, you’ll recognize Jimmy’s world, and you’ll probably recognize Jimmy, too.

    A nice, quick read.


    PS: Don’t pass it along right when you’re done.  It rewards a second reading.

  4. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

    I first heard about this book from NPR’s You Must Read This series, a series where authors choose books that the frequently urge others to read. For me, the series has had a good batting average, and this book seemed particularly interesting (unfortunately, the series has ended). What’s the verdict on this novel? It’s hard to say, which I explain shortly. Before I do, I will say that if one plans to read this, it’s probably best to know as little as possible. The delight of certain aspects of the novel may slightly diminish if one knows even a brief description. For those who don’t care, I’ll write more in the next section. Before I do, on a sidenote, I believe Hoban is the author of the terrific, funny children’s book that features Francis and her family of badgers(?).

    Any fan of the original Star Trek series would be familiar with the episode with the “Yans” and the “Coms” or what I like to call the “E Pleb Neesta” episode. (I’m not sure what the name of it is.) Imagine an entire novel built on a similar premise, and that’s a basic description of Riddley Walker, with the primitive language, including weird spelling and a lack of punctuation, as a central feature of the novel. At first, this excited me, but as the novel progressed the language became tiresome, primarily because I would invariably encounter words or even sentences that I couldn’t understand (some of them recurring). Additionally, like other primitive cultures, this one has mystical element, which could make the reading even more difficult. Here’s a sample of this, in a section entitled “Stoan:”

    Stoans want to be lissent to. Them big brown stoans in the formers feal they want to stan up and talk like men. Some times youwl see them lying in the groun with ther humps and hollers theywl say to you, Sit a wyl and res easy why dont you. Then when youre sitting on them theywl talk and theywl tel if you lissen. Theywl tel whats in them but you wont hear nothing what theyre saying without you go as fas as the stoan. You myt think a stoan is slow that’s becaws you wont see it moving. Wont see it walking roun. That dont mean its slow tho. There are the many cools of Addom which they are the party cools of stoan.

    What made the reading frustrating is that, at some point, I developed a better grasp of the language, but there would a few words or sentences I never got. In the passage above, I never understood “cools of Addom” or “party cools of stoan.” I’m pretty sure “Addom” is “atom, but not sure what “cools” means–the way atoms in solid matter are hardly moving and are relatively “cold?”

    As for the plot, I guess it’s similar to other sci-fi dsytopian novels where the main character’s journey involves discovery about the problems and solutions of her world. At this point, I really don’t have a firm understanding of the book, and I’m not that motivated to dig deeper. It’s the type of book that could likely reward re-readings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I would think highly of it, after doing more analysis.

    1. Yeah he wrote the Francis books, illustrated by his wife. He also wrote the book The Mouse and His Child which I never read, but whose film adaptation I saw a hundred times when it was on HBO when I was a kid.

      I didn’t know he wrote books for adults. I clicked this because I thought you had read some children’s literature. Thanks for dashing my hopes!

    2. It’s not a children’s lit, but it features creative use of language that might interest you.

      (I’m not familiar with Mouse and His Child, and I didn’t realize it was made into an animated film.)

  5. A Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    GGM might be one of my favorite storytellers, and perhaps he’s one of the very best. Even if the story, itself, isn’t great, I love to read his telling of it. To me, his style seems connected to the type of stories told around a campfire by a traveling troubadour–the style and the flourishes and details would add a colorful and lively sense of romance and drama. Here’s a taste of this in the opening paragraph:

    ON THE DAY THEY WERE GOING TO KILL him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit. “He was always dreaming about trees,” Placida Linero, his mother, told me twenty-seven years later, recalling the details of that distressing Monday. “The week before, he’d dreamed that he was alone in a tinfoil airplane and flying through the almond trees without bumping into anything,” she said to me. She had a well-earned reputation as an accurate interpreter of other people’s dreams, provided they were told her before eating, but she hadn’t noticed any ominous augury in those two dreams of her son’s, or in the other dreams of trees he’d described to her on the mornings preceding his death.

    When I read a novel with an entertaining story, but insipid prose, I often crave something well-written. GGM’s novels fit the bill. Indeed, in a way, the quality of his stories are less important than the storytelling, although the stories in the novels I’ve read have been entertaining and engaging, if not more than that. This book, a novella, was no exception.

  6. Quarantine by Jim Crace

    I had this on my list because the description in NPR’s “You Must Read This” piqued my interest. Here’s a sample:

    Ever since graduate school, where all of us wannabe writers studied Crace’s novel like scripture, I’ve read the book about once a year. I can’t get over the shimmering prose or the author’s unwavering confidence or the way he freights the most innocuous detail with meaning and tension.

    The description of the prose is accurate, although I waver between a positive and negative view of the prose. For me, it felt affected, maybe self-conscious, like the writing of a talented young writer. Overall, I think the writing was probably the best part of the story.

    The story is a re-telling of Jesus’s temptation in the desert–one that veers quite far from the original story. For me, that’s a precarious approach, as I have very little tolerance for stories about Jesus that fall outside my understanding, or at least interpretations that most Christians agree would be allowable. To be fair, Crace didn’t write anything that offended or upset me, but I did read warily, especially at the beginning.

    Overall, I don’t have much to say about the book; but I also really didn’t dig really deep, and this novel could reward such efforts.

  7. Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

    I picked this up from the McKinley book sale, and it’s the first book by Coetzee I’ve read. The book was just OK.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the book is it’s structure (and the following will be spoiler-ish.) Each page is divided into horizontal sections. The top section features commentary about different subjects such as politics, philosophy, art, etc. The section below that seems to be a narration of events, written by the author of the commentary above. His story involves meeting a beautiful woman, who eventually helps him type out an essay he’s writing (presumably the commentary). Eventually, a third section opens up with narration from the woman he meets. The concept is interesting, but the actual execution and experience didn’t really live up to the promise in my view.

  8. I’m Thinking About Ending Things by Iain Reid

    I thought this was engaging and well-written, although I was a little disappointed by the ending. To be fair, I had already seen the movie based on this book. I should say that I think the movie is superior. In a way, the movie does more creative things with the concept, and it’s far more subtle–although that may make the film more confusing than the novel.

  9. I’ve Come to Understand What Trump Voters Wanted. It’s not 2016 Anymore WaPo op-ed by Stephen King (Yeah, that Stephen King)

    I’m putting this here for the writing, not so much the political content. I think I’ve enjoyed Stephen King’s non-fiction more than his fiction. Here, he gives an anecdote of an encounter with a Trump supporter, telling it in a way that feels like a Stephen King story. There are some lines in it that I liked as well. For example,

    A good many mainstream Republicans have deserted Trump and will either sit this one out or will vote, quietly, for Biden. Yet Trump’s core support has shrunk very little — and it has hardened. The MAGA contingent is an apolitical rock packed into a Republican snowball.

  10. New Kid
    by Jerry Craft (2019)

    Jerry Craft’s New Kid won the 2020 Newbery Medal. It’s the first graphic novel to be awarded juvenile literature’s most prestigious honor, so it’s worth checking out simply on these merits.

    Told episodically over the course of a school year, New Kid is the story of Jordan, an African American teen sent to a private school by his mother, who works in the business world, and his father, who runs a community center. Jordan’s parents are fully aware that the adjustment is difficult for their middle-schooler, but they value his chance to attend a highly regarded institution, like any parents would, and they do their best to help him get through.

    There are only a handful of Black students on campus, and they don’t necessarily become Jordan’s best buddies, even while they all experience seeming built-in microaggressions aimed at their otherness. One teacher never gets Jordan’s name right, a running gag through the novel, and a secret joke for Jordan and one of his Black classmates.

    It isn’t only the color of Jordan’s skin that alienates him. He’s a teen, after all, so alienation is built right in. Add his newness and his desire to attend art school instead of college prep, and there is plenty of separation for Jordan everywhere he turns.

    One of the best things about the novel is an occasional excerpt from Jordan’s sketchbook, where we get a first-person glimpse at his subjective teen experience. They are hilarious and clever and add a dimension to the narrative you don’t often see in traditional prose.

    I’ve spent my life adoring the Newbery, mostly as a reader but also as an educator. I wrote my Master’s thesis on it, and I therefore have all kinds of biases about what’s Newbery-worthy and what’s not. I sort of can’t help it: my favorite novel is a Newbery winner, and several other Newbery winners are among my most cherished books.

    Graphic novels are a different kind of literature, and it’s silly to pretend they aren’t, with advantages over prose fiction and disadvantages too. I had to be won over the way I expect every book with the gold medallion on its cover to win me over, but I admit this one had a few additional speedbumps to get over, just because it’s the first of its kind.

    It delivers. Hard. It’s engrossing, amusing, entertaining, contemporary, emotional, and loaded with attitude. Craft’s terrific illustrations guide the reader’s attention across the page like the best-crafted verbal narrative. The artist-writer tells you when to slow down, when to speed up, when to scrutinize little details, and when to take in everything at once. It’s beautiful and a total joy to read.

  11. The Beast Player (2006; this translation 2019)
    Nahoko Uehashi; translated by Cathy Hirano.

    The coastal village of Ake is a breeding and training ground for the Toda, ferocious seadragon-like creatures handled with utmost caution by select caretakers. Elin’s mother is descended from a different people, rumored to have a dangerous magic enabling her to control the Toda.

    Elin’s green eyes give her away as descended from the same people, and she seems to have inherited some of the same abilities, but when she’s orphaned as a little girl, she has nobody to instruct her in the lore of her mother’s ancestors or in their abilities.

    Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player series, published between 2006 and 2009 in four installments, inspired a manga series and an anime series. This 2019 English translation by Cathy Hirano combines Uehashi’s first two novels in one volume, and was a Printz honor book and a Batchelder honor book (for young adult literature and translated juvenile literature, respectively), a dual recognition inspiring my purchase.

    I was immediately drawn into Uehashi’s elaborate fantasy world’s politics, mythology, and geography, but it’s Elin herself who kept me turning pages. The young, abandoned woman applies her problem-solving intelligence and innate sympathy for animals to developing profound relationships with a few very kind people.

    Yes, Elin is held in some awe when people see her green eyes, but when she engages them, they become better versions of themselves. This is not the story of a woman gifted with deep understanding of the world’s most feared beasts. It’s the story of how she uses it to affect the people around her, possibly even in a way that changes centuries of political conflict.

    This is the ambition the best fantasy literature sets out with. Alienation plus special talent plus international conflict is a well-established formula, but set against this new, Japanese-flavored world, it feels special, at least to this half-Japanese reader. Certain elements remind me of Anne McCaffrey’s Menolly character in Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, but Elin is a special heroine I can’t wait to read more of.

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