Reads ’11

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Title: In the Shadow of Gotham
Author: Stefanie Pintoff
Pages: 400
Published: 2009
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I got this book as a gift for Christmas, and while I’m not really one for the murder mystery, I enjoyed this book.  Set in New York in the early 1900’s, the story revolves around a detective trying to unravel a homicide. He finds himself working – only somewhat willingly – with a college professor who’s doing some of the earliest work on psychological profiling. Through a series of seemingly disjointed clues, the detective comes to question what he’s being told – and sometimes what he sees with his own eyes – in his efforts to find the killer of a brilliant young woman.

The novel is, I expect, intended to be a part of a larger series, much like Parker’s Spencer novels; the main character’s past is hinted at in short flashbacks and private musings, and the novel’s conclusion leaves me with the feeling that there’s another story in his future. I’m fairly certain that I would read such a novel, but I think I’ll borrow the book from a library rather than purchase the novel for my library.

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Title: Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy’s Story of Survival, 1941-1946
Author: Greg Dawson
Pages: 278
Published: 2009
My Rating: 4 out of 5

This is the true story of the author’s mother, Zhanna Arkashyna, a young Jewish Ukrainian piano prodigy caught up in the swell of the Nazi advancement through Europe. Separated from her parents during a death march with the order from her father to “just live,” Zhanna runs from the line and escapes back to her home town. She is miraculously reunited with her sister (who also has impressive musical talent) and the two manage, though a series of kindnesses and the conceit of Nazi occupiers, to live through the war and find their way to America.

The story is lovingly told by Zhanna’s son, who only recently learned of his mother’s experiences in the Holocaust. He discovers his mother’s name on a list of the dead at a memorial, and was inspired to learn – and to relay – her story. I found myself intrigued by this book; despite the fact that I’m not always fond of memoir, Dawson struck what I thought was a wonderful balance between personal testimony and well-told story. This book serves to remind us that these stories exist in our families and our neighbors and in places where we may not expect them. We have an obligation, I think, to hear them and learn them and pass them on.

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Title: Things Fall Apart
Author: Chinua Achebe
Pages: 209
Published: 1994
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This is a book that I felt obligated to read; one that I thought I should have read ages ago and never got to. I was inspired to read it after my go-around with Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, which brought up for me the issues of colonialism and the clashes of cultures.  When we came to my class to talk to my students, Eddie listed this book as one that would help to put colonialism into a cultural perspective.

The novel is about a Nigerian tribal leader, Okonkwo, and the events in his life that show us the ways in which colonialism – the introduction and imposition of a foreign value system on an already existing way of life – complicates (and often destroys) native cultures. The main character is strangely sympathetic for all of his faults, and despite his tendency toward cruelty, I found myself with a genuine concern for what was to come for him.

I’m certain that I would have gleaned more from this novel had I read it with a group; I feel as though I missed out on a lot of the nuances that would have been made clear if I’d had other people to talk to about this story and its implications. Regardless, I was able to use the experience of this novel to better understand the complications of how we have historically interacted with each other, and that alone made it well worth my time.

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Title: Jacob the Liar
Author: Jurek Becker (translated by Leila Vennewitz)
Pages: 256
Published: 1999
My Rating: 4 out of 5

I really, really enjoyed this book, despite its being inordinately frustrating in places.

The novel tells the story of Jacob and how he manages to hear one little bit of encouraging news in a Jewish ghetto controlled by the Nazis. Unable – or, more likely, unwilling – to keep it to himself, Jacob lets the news slip, people make assumptions that he fails to deny about how he obtained that news, and it all goes forward from there.

It’s a hopeful book, while at the same time it looks unflinchingly at the despair and hopelessness of the conditions under which Jacob and his neighbors live. We’re privy to the quiet things lovers say to one another in such times, we agonize over the choices that, in any other time would be small and insignificant but which, in a Nazi occupied ghetto, usually mean the difference between living and dying, and we consider the morality of telling lies which inspire people to stay upright one more day.

The ending is, perhaps, what impressed me the most. The narrator leaves us with the fact that the ending of Jacob’s story is unsatisfying, but asks that after such a remarkable series of experiences, how can the story end the way it did? We’re offered an alternate ending, one which seems more fitting to what came before it, and that asks us to consider whether well-intentioned lies every really serve their intended purpose.

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Title: When the Emperor was Divine
Author: Julie Otsuka
Pages: 160
Published: 2003
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This is a little bit of a novel that tells an intimate, almost hidden story. In it, we follow a Japanese-American family through their experience in an internment camp after Pearl Harbor and until the end of the war, when they are allowed to return to their home and are reunited with the father, who was arrested and detained separately from his family. Everyone returns altered and to a very different world.

I enjoyed this story mostly because of how it was told; it read more like personal memories replayed for oneself rather than packaged and polished and told to another. Because of that, the narrative may seem disjointed in places, and a lot is left for the reader to work out on his or her own, but I think that adds to the power of the book, rather than detracting from it. We’re left to consider what happens in the empty spaces; what it means to be unjustly accused and ostracized and then returned to your life, with the recompense given to released convicts, and expected to reintegrate into a world which looks differently upon you for the experience.

I think this would be an excellent companion novel to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in a high school curriculum. I can imagine reading Hotel with juniors and Emperor with them the next year and discussing how the experience of detention was rendered in each novel, and what each has to teach us about the effects that practice had not only the people who were detained, but also on the people who were left behind.

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Title: Interview With the Vampire
Author: Anne Rice
Pages: 342
Published: 1976 – reprinted 2009
My Rating: 4 out of 5

A little while ago, a girlfriend clued me in to the fact that Anne Rice is willing to Skype herself into classrooms to talk about her books and about writing in general. She didn’t have to tell me twice. I immediately followed the steps that were required to set such a thing up, got in touch with Ms. Rice’s assistant, emailed my boss, and changed the reading list for my senior English class. The kids had to come back after Christmas break with Interview, I told them, because there was a very high probability of our being able to have a class with the author. I confirmed Ms. Rice’s visit to our classroom the other day – she’ll be gracing our big screen on March 9th.

I had read Interview back in the 80’s – my first copy of the novel is a hardcover, and I bought a paperback at Christmas time for taking notes – and I remember being impressed enough to go on an Anne Rice binge for a while. I’ve not read all of her novels (in fact, I’m not even sure the amount of reading I’ve done from her canon can be considered “most” of her novels. Upon hearing this, The Goddess of the Front Desk told me the other day that I must read Memnoch the Devil), but those I have read I have enjoyed quite a lot. I’m intrigued by the questions – cultural, existential, and spiritual – that she asks in her novels, and I’m especially fond of Rice’s gorgeous facility with description. She has a way of conveying images and sensations that works very well for me; so much so that I use the first chapter of The Witching Hour as an example of exemplary craft when I teach description. Her characters are achingly alive and complex (and infuriating; Lestat makes me crazy). I feel transported when I read her work, and the experience is rich and exciting.

I hadn’t read Interview in years, but I found myself falling back into it with ease and delight. When I first read the book, probably 20 years ago, I read it purely as entertainment. Re-reading it with an eye toward scholarship was exhilarating for me, and I found myself left with some challenging questions that I have really enjoyed sharing with my students. I’m very much looking forward to my own interview with Ms. Rice; watch teacherseducation for a reflection on the experience.

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Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Pages: 323
Published: 1960, reprinted 2002
My Rating: 5 out of 5


I never grow tired of this novel.

For reasons I never quite fathomed, I managed to escape American public school without ever being assigned this book (strangely, this is true of a number of other “must reads” in the U.S. school system, too, but that’s a post for another time), so I read it as an adult. I was unprepared for the immediacy of the novel or the voracious way in which I consumed it my first time through, and I have found that its hold on me and my imagination hasn’t waned in the several re-readings I’ve done.

I think that one of the reasons this novel is so much a part of the American conscience and self-identity is that it is neither heavy-handed nor self-righteous. The story is told through the eyes of a young woman reflecting back on a formative period of her childhood, and the narrative reflects both our narrator’s education and perspective as well as her persisting sense of hesitance about the difference between what she knows now and what she understood then. This, I think, is a perfect reflection of our own national conscience. We know better, but we’re still not getting things quite right.

I make every effort to include this novel in at least one of my classes – usually with the younger students – every year. It has enough vocabulary to be challenging, the themes and ideas it asks the reader to wrestle with are worthwhile, and the imagery of the story is such that it stays with a reader long after the novel is finished (my personal favorites are the blanket around Scout’s shoulders during the fire, the yelling matches between Miss Maudie and the “foot-washin’ Baptists”, and the entire gallery of black townspeople standing as Atticus exits the courthouse). One of my goals is that my students don’t escape the American public school system without being given the opportunity to experience this classic, important, and moving novel.

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Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Author: Ray Bradbury
Pages: 290
Published: 1962, reprinted 1998
My Rating:  5 out of 5


I read this novel last year in preparation for teaching it to my freshman English class. I re-read it this year with my juniors, and I’ve found that, even reading it again so soon, it lost none of its original appeal to me. The language is lush and gorgeous and rich, the themes are challenging and intriguing, and some of the scenes are deliciously, spine-tinglingly creepy. I delight in the description and have spent a lot of time reading chapters aloud to my students, which they enjoy almost as much as I do; one of my kids sent me a message saying that he understands things much better when he hears them than when he reads to himself, and he only “got it” after hearing it aloud in class. The juniors were a lot better at picking up on the subtleties in Bradbury’s novel; we spent a lot of time talking about the nature of fear and of love and good and evil, and about why we tend to make things harder on ourselves than we really deserve. I have absolutely no regrets about teaching this novel twice in one year, and I’ll happily do it again if the opportunity presents itself.

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Title: Sarah’s Key
Author: Tatiana deRosnay
Pages: 295
Published: 2007
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I devoured this novel in a weekend. I had heard about it through some of my Holocaust education sources – it shows up on a few reading lists, and someone I know recommended it to me – so I bought it from an end-cap at the bookstore a week ago. I started reading it one Friday night before bed and finished it on Saturday morning.

The story plays with time. We begin in an apartment in Paris in the early hours of July 16th, 1942. The French police are banging on the door of a Jewish family’s apartment, ordering them to collect their things and come away. We then switch to modern-day France, where an American ex-pat journalist is assigned research for the 60h anniversary of the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundups. The novel moves back and forth between Sarah’s ordeals and Julia’s growing obsession to find out what happened to her.

I couldn’t put the book down. This one is, without question, making its way into the freshman/sophomore curriculum at my high school.

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Title: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
Author: Greg Epstein
Pages: 272
Published: 2009
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5


For a very long time now, I have labeled myself a “lefty Humanist.” While I had a good, basic understanding of what that meant, I have been inspired lately to learn more. I bought this book on a whim while looking for something else, and I’m so glad I did.

Epstein’s voice is casual, easygoing and, at times, downright funny. He explains the origins of Humanism, goes into some of the major philosophers and thinkers who can be described as Humanist (even if they didn’t identify as such, whether because the term hadn’t yet been coined or because the culture wasn’t ready to accept such a claim), and explains away, clearly and logically, the idea that someone can’t be a good person without some sort of god guiding the way.

The more I read, the more convinced I am that Humanism may be exactly what we need to save ourselves.

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Title: Outlander
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Pages: 896
Published: 2004
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This was actually the first book I bought in e-format when I got my new iPad.  I’ve read this novel probably a half a dozen times already, and I have never grown tired of it.  It, and its series companions, are my answer to the “what books would you take with you to a deserted island” question – for all the reading I do (and I do a lot of reading), this series remains my favorite.

The novel follows the story of Claire, an Englishwoman and former nurse during WWII, who, during a trip to get reacquainted with her husband, Frank, falls through a stone circle in Scotland and wakes in the early 1740’s.  She falls in with a group of clansmen and proceeds to have a number of adventures, many quite uncomfortable and unpleasant, though the entire story is shot through with moments of real emotion and tenderness.

Gabaldon is a skillful storyteller.  While there are a number of historical facts that aren’t quite right, those probably aren’t enough to pull the average reader out of the narrative.  The characters are rich and well-developed, the description is compelling, the plot is exciting, and the dialogue is engaging and entirely believable.

It’s an effort not to continue on through the series, but I’ve promised myself I’d finish the Harry Potter cycle this summer, so I can’t afford the time that another 6,200 pages would require.

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Title: Peace Like a River
Author: Leif Enger
Pages: 320
Published: 2002
My Rating: 5 out of 5

I adored this novel.  I picked it up at my favorite used bookstore because I was intrigued by the title, and I put it in my basket because it was priced at 99 cents – not a very auspicious start for a book that would possess me for the better part of three months, but there you have it.  I am not sure what possessed me to read it as soon as I did – usually, the stacks of books I buy at that shop are tough to get through (because, you know, I can buy a dozen books for about 10 bucks) – but I picked this one up very soon after buying it and nearly swallowed it whole.  Very soon after that, I was ordering 15 copies for my school, and this novel became the last book I shared with my seniors last year.

It’s not a happy story.  The plot traces the experiences of a small family – Dad, older boy Davey, younger boy Ruben, and little sister Swede – immediately before and after an act of violence changes all their lives.  Despite the tragedy of this little group, though, the novel is compelling in both its attitude and in its feel.  Ruben, our narrator, is telling the story after having had some distance from the events, and his perspective – and his sense of wry humor – make the details vivid and engaging.  There are a number of plot devices that could have made this book feel contrived and heavy, but never once does it get bogged down in itself; in fact, the narrative is such that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting, here and there, the true gravity of the family’s situation.

The students ate this novel up.  We spent a number of really productive classes discussing the implications of Enger’s story and the choices he made in telling it.  I continue to be enamored of this story, and I’m certain it will find a place in future classes.

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Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Author: J.K. Rowling
Pages: 309
Published: 1998
My Rating: 5 out of 5

My present to myself this summer is to re-read the Harry Potter cycle.

We read the novels as each was published.  In fact, it is true that Mr. Chili and I read each of them aloud to one another, and then he read them again to the girls when they were old enough to listen to bedtime stories.  Each of the girls has read the series to herself, as well; Harry Potter has been a big part of our family for a very long time.

I’m delighted, but not a bit surprised, to report that this book is just as wonderful now as it was 15 years ago.  It took me no time to get through – the narrative is smooth and engaging, and the fact that I’m intimately familiar with the story makes for pretty easy reading.  I’m finding, too, that I’m enjoying the novels quite a bit more for having watched their movie versions; the variations and commonalities in the two media make for a really interesting experience in re-reading.

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Title: Those Who Save Us
Author: Jenna Blum
Pages: 496
Published: 2005
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This is another book I picked up nearly for free in my used bookstore.  I’m not even sure what attracted me to it, but the thought occurs that perhaps I am guided by a reading goddess, because I keep stumbling upon truly life-changing works seemingly be accident.

I was stunned by this novel.  In fact, I put it down after the first chapter so that I could soak in the experience of it.  Blum has a genuine talent for description, and for conveying incredibly complex, difficult emotion seemingly through mere suggestion.  The first chapter, for example, simply described the weather after a funeral, and recounted the widow’s drive home from the church in her daughter’s car.  What stunned me (yes, I know; I used the word stunned again, but it’s the right word) was that, by the time I’d finished the chapter, I had what I felt was a complete picture of the older woman’s character – an impression that finishing the novel only confirmed.  In that short, even-handed opening chapter, the author had conveyed depth and complexity in a way that took the rest of the nearly 500 pages to explain.

This, again, isn’t a happy novel.  It looks baldly at some of the impossible choices that people are sometimes (often?) forced to make, and the consequences those choices have on the rest of their lives.  It looks, too, at the ways in which those choices sometimes (often?) spill over into the lives of others, and the ways in which those ripples make themselves known through time.  There is strength in this story, and though the author could easily have swung a sledgehammer in the telling of it, she never once comes off as heavy-handed or over-done.

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Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Author: J.K. Rowling
Pages: 340
Published: 1999
My Rating: 5 out of 5

 

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Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Author: J.K. Rowling
Pages: 435
Published: 1999
My Rating: 5 out of 5

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Title: The Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Pages: 381
Published: 2007
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Author: J.K. Rowling
Pages: 435
Published: 1999
My Rating: 5 out of 5

3 responses to “Reads ’11

  1. joolz

    in re the last book on your list… if i weren’t so broke, i’d definitely buy a copy. since i am, i will see if one of the branches of my city’s library has a copy. i could never be convinced of the existence of a god (by myself or others), and it’s alienated me from about half my family. that’s been a hard pill to swallow. i’m a good person. i treat other people better than they treat me. i do kind things for people all the time, like translate spanish into english (in reverse too ) for the sweet older woman who lives down in #6.

    it feels good knowing that i do these things not because of some imaginary entity, but because my heart and mind feel better when i do. it feels good knowing that i’m but a very small part of this, whatever life across the universe might be. i wish i were more capable of explaining these things to that half of my family… the half that thinks i must worship satan if i don’t believe in god. funny thing is, i don’t believe in satan either.

    thanks for making me aware of that book. i will let you know what i think of it.

  2. I just finished Those Who Save Us and I too devoured it and couldn’t put it down. The characters were amazing and the story, told from a German’s perspective of the Holocaust, was gripping, and as you say, stunning. My only beef was in Rainer’s character – I didn’t feel I knew him and wanted to know more about why those two got together. It didn’t feel right.

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