The Nelson Mandela Foundation. Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0393336467 208 pp. $
This comic book format biography seems a little propaganda like to me, with it’s official endorsement and preface containing a speech Mandela delivered to launch the comic books series in 2005. The volume covers Mandela’s life story but is overly inspirational.
I read the first chapter, about two dozen pages. The artwork is nothing extraordinary, and the tone is a bit didactic.
Moore, Lorrie. A Gate at the Stairs. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 978-0375409288 336 pp. $25.95
This post 9/11 coming-of-age story interweaves the story of a grieving Jewish father and his daughter’s search for her unknown niece or nephew, fathered by her brother who perished in the WTC on September 11, 2001.
The writing style is distinguished and just lovely, quite possibly one of best written books I looked at in 2009. Every page seems to contain some kernel of truth about the world. The writing isn’t high literary or academic, so I do think it’s accessible. I didn’t grow up as a midwestern Jew, but I found the protagonist very relatable, and supporting characters are vividly drawn. Tassie is a bit of an apathetic narrator, but her tendency to hang back a little lends itself well to the observational tone of this contemplative but meaty story. The pace is deliberate, and works for the tone and depth of the story.
Murphy, Peter. John the Revelator. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. ISBN 978-0151014026 272 pp. $
Beginning in the Dickensian style of “I am born,” John the Revelator traces a young man’s coming of age in southeastern Ireland. Young John’s mother, a maid, is in poor health and deeply religious, and John, perhaps because of her storytelling, is plagued by nightmares (a crow figures heavily in his dreams). He falls into a friendship with a boy named Jamey who is bright by unmotivated and introduces him to smoking, drinking, and women. Jamey is a writer, and the narrative is
frequently broken up by John reading Jamey’s stories.
The prose is fresh and the storytelling imbued with symbols and allusions. Murphy shines at grotesque but lovingly rendered details of things I didn’t want to read about while eating my lunch (like John’s fascination with worms); such details are woven throughout, but it felt like it took a while to get to the part where John IS a teenage boy, which is the meaty, interesting part of the book.
Heinrich, Bernd. Summer World: A Season of Bounty. Ecco, 2009. ISBN 978-0060742171 272 pp. $26.99
Professor Bernd Heinrich presents a observation of summer in New England from a biologist’s point of view in this companion volume to Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Things I learned from the 50 pages I read (and the additional 50 I skimmed) include:
- Small birds migrate at night, following the stars
- Next year’s buds are made the previous season
- Wood frog mating is entirely random
- Only 1 in 100 larve of the northern forest caterpillar turn into moths
Parts of the introduction read like my eighth grade earth science book, and some of the same information is repeated in the first chapter, nearly verbatim. Chapters are not arranged by date, though most begin with a date: a journalistic style observation about the natural world in a fixed point in time–before the author delves into a topic like dormancy, mating, or nest building, bringing in pop culture song lyrics, pivotal research studies, and childhood memories along the way. The inconsistent chronology bothered me because the chapters didn’t have another obvious reason for being arranged the way they were, and each chapter is strongly themed, and could be a stand-alone essay.
The index is good, and the selected references appear to include each study mentioned. Hienrich provides excellent modelling of the scientific method in the brief experiments he carries out, lending a strong air of scientific integrity to the book.
While this is a lovely gift book for a biologist or naturalist, with it’s ragged pages, beautifully rendered and shaded pencil line drawings and watercolors, reproduced in muted green ink, the writing is nowhere as engaging as Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals by Richard Conniff, which I also read this year. An AP Bio student, or bio major who loves nature may really enjoy this book . A blurb on the back compares Heinrich to the famous naturalist, but I think he lacks the voice and presence of the famous civilly disobedient essayist.
Baker, Elna. The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Dutton, 2009. ISBN 978-0525951353 288 pp. $25.95
I devoured this laugh-out-loud funny fish out of water story engaging, self-deprecating, and full of character growth. Mormon Elna goes to NYC for college, looking for love and an education. She is memorable, if not always likable, as she dresses in an unfortunate Halloween costume, falls in love with a non-Mormon, and rapidly loses a third of her body weight. I did think the book could have used some tighter editing, but her funny and sporadic lists were a charming addition that detracted from the book’s flaws.
Kramer, Clara. Clara’s War.
When the SS invaded on July 5, 1941 the Jews in Zolkiew felt lucky they has some wealth, an oil press business, and could ransom a bit for their lives, but still sensed the days were numbered. Clara Schwarz and her immediate family, along with two other families, escaped the ghetto and lived in an underground bunker over the Beck family’s home, hiding from the SS for nearly two years. Ordered by her mother to keep a written record, her diary, detailing day to life of a Jewish family in Poland during WWII is now on display at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The book’s endpapers are decorated with an image of the blue penciled diary.
Clara’s story, as told to Stephen Gantz, is chronologically arranged, with each chapter prefaced by an excerpt from her diary, written between ages 15-17. The writing at the beginning of the story contains some nice turns of phrase (“his father … was on his heels, but only managed to catch his shadow” and “… I could make out the silhouettes of Zolkiew’s baroque church spires with their pregnant onion tops and golden domes…” ), but as the tale of love, loss and horror wears on, the writing becomes less distinguished. Many Yiddish words aren’t defined in context, the pacing is slow, and the introduction of the entire (large!) family at once over a few pages is a lot to keep track of; keeping characters straight is in part aided by a family tree. A map of the cramped living quarters is also included.
Certainly, the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy, and only by sharing these stories can we ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. Although the story is unique to the family, it’s not a unique concept for a book, and it pales in comparison to Anne Frank’s classic Diary of a Young Girl, and doesn’t compare in voice, language, or style. Purchase for larger collections.
Joe Drape. Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen. Times, 2009. ISBN 978-0805088908 288 pp. $25
Reporter Joe Draper counts himself a Midwesterner even though he hasn’t lived there in 30 years. He returns from New York to his Kansas roots with his wife and 2 year son to chronicle the 2008 season of a highly acclaimed high school football team, with promised “complete access” from 31 year veteran coach, Roger Barta. The narrative dips into the geography, economy, and history of the team and Smith County with plenty of local color, and details training camp, student struggles to lead, and the challenges of this particularly slacker class of seniors who will be this season’s first stringers.
Gameday play-by-play is vivid and made exciting even to non-football fans, but it takes a long time to get to this action. I’m disappointed, because I think the story could have been told in a much more effective way (like reporter Dave Cullen’s Columbine maybe, where action and character building and research purposefully open each chapter and drive the chronological narrative of what happened on a specific date…).
Several players are highlighted, including team captains and other leaders, but even larger than life personalities are strangely flat, and don’t encourage empathy or connection. While I admire the ethics of team-building being more important than winning, this chronicle is probably a great book to offer to parents or educators because of its themes of growing upstanding citizens,
Gershow, Miriam. The Local News. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. ISBN 978-0385527613 368 pp. 29.95
Danny Pasternak epitomizes the phrase “dumb jock,” but he’s attractive and popular and when he disappears after a basketball practice one summer evening, the community is in an uproar. It takes months for the search parties to wane, the memorial on the high school’s wall to come down. Lydia, his smarter and less popular sister, whom Danny alternatively and indiscriminately bullied and extended small kindnesses towards, muddles through the aftermath as the family drifts apart without their lynchpin.
This is an extremely well executed book, with distinguished writing. The plot is perfectly woven, with the drama of what happened to Lydia’s missing brother (runaway? kidnapped? foul play?) pulling the reader through the story without being over the top sensational. The voice is pitch perfect as we see everything through the lens of Lydia, now ten years older. Her recollections of the high school social structure are crystal clear and wholly believable, and events have an in the moment feel, rather than a reminiscent feel. Allusions to 1995 are mostly political/history related, as opposed to pop culture; the universality of the themes made me feel this book could be set in any time period. Characterizations are deep. Action, dialogue and detail develop each individual, and all are fully realized on the page.
The age of the protagonist during the course of the book’s events and the coming of age rituals endured in the midst of this crisis (first kiss, first house party) are tangible make this a possible recommendation for mature teen readers. Plus, the hook is great: “My brother is missing, and by the way, I don’t like him all that much.”
Philipp Meyer. American Rust. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. ISBN 978-0385527514 384 pp. $
In the shadow of an closed steel mill that unemployed 150,000 people in the last twenty years, half the population is on welfare, and the other half has returned to hunting & gathering. Isaac English’s sister Lee made it out, to Yale and then into a strategic marriage, but Isaac’s dreams of college and even part time work at the local library are crushed since he has to care for his disabled father, as his mother’s suicide left them alone, five years ago. Isaac plots his escape, inviting his football hero turned slacker friend Billy Poe to accompany him, at least to the abandoned factory on the town’s outskirts where Isaac plans to catch a slow moving coal trail out. A distasteful encounter with some transients at the factory has unpredicted outcomes, and Isaac skips town, leaving Poe–and his rap sheet–to take the fall.
Told from multiple points of view, this bleak novel examines financial and mental depression, the nature and ethics of love and relationships, the criminal justice system, and the minutiae and politics of small town post industrial life. I found the writing, with its multiple viewpoints, a challenge, most of all because Meyer shows Isaac’s character (who has had bouts of depression and an attempted suicide by drowning that Poe rescued him from) slips into a detached second person point of view with no explanation. Characters are strongly portrayed and realistically flawed, but not terribly sympathetic (the prodigal sister who doesn’t do much to help her family’s situation, and then feels guilty, the mildly attractive police chief who bends the law for his lover, the stereotyped ex-husband who comes sniffing around to get laid). The pacing is excellent, with a palpably oppressive setting, but the themes are heavy and adult. On a final note, sex is used to convey various types of romantically tinged relationships and I found all of them to be pretty wooden.