Monday, July 31, 2017


I think had I checked on goodreads to see what Hood was about before downloading it onto my iPad, I most probably would not have taken this book from the library. But... I'd finished nine, ten and Barkskins still hadn't become available for me to continue with my reading of that massive book. It was late in the evening, I needed something to read before turning off the light. I can't say I'd loved Room, my one and only Emma Donoghue book, but it was very engaging and I enjoyed her writing style so without doing any further investigation, I downloaded Hood and started to read.

In this much earlier novel by Emma Donoghue, there are two big story lines: grief and lesbianism. I'm sure the lesbian aspect of the story might be quite different - or at least I'd hope it would be quite different if the book was written today. The story takes place in 1992 Dublin where the main character, Pen, loses her lover, Cara, to a car crash. Pen has never come out to anyone but a few of Cara's friends. This part of the story is about  what it would mean to come out to Cara's father (whom Pen and Cara had been living together with for a few years), to Cara's sister, to some folks at work (she works as a primary teacher in a girls' Catholic school) or to her own mother. This part of the book wasn't that relatable to me, and like I said, I hope that if this story was being told today that much of this would be very different.

The grief plot line, on the other hand, was very relatable. The story takes place over the 5 day period after Cara's death. While going through the early stages of grieving, Pen spends lots of time remembering the past. Totally understandable and completely relatable. What is it like to grieve for a "friend" who is much more than a friend? There were several passages related to grief that really stood out.

'I heard,' she mentioned, 'there was a death in your house.'
My face slipped. 'There was,' I said.
'Is it your first, by any chance?'
I blinked at her.
'Your first brush with the whole business?'
Strictly speaking, my father was my first, but I said, 'It is, Sister.'
'Ah,' she said, her breath trailing away. After a second she said, 'You'll get better at it.'
'What, does each one get easier?'

'No, no,' she said, tucking her hands under her habit, 'but you'll have more know-how next time.'
Know-how? Does know how even help? I've had so many losses in my life over the past several years. In just the past few weeks, I've lost a very dear long-time pen pal, a caring friend from one of my book clubs and a much-loved family friend. And no, it doesn't get easier. And I don't think I've gotten any better. Grief stinks. Losing loved ones stinks. Losing friends way too early stinks.

Another passage had me thinking.
It came into my head that everyone on this street had either gone through a loss more or less equivalent to mine, or would do so by the end of their life. Some would have it easier, some worse, some over and over.
My guess is that you don't feel a great loss when you don't feel a great connection first. Pen was blessed to feel so connected to Cara. It was a true love. So in that respect, she was lucky. (I should add here that the part of the story that I liked least was Pen and Cara's relationship. Pen was completely monogamous, completely committed to Cara. Cara was... well... she just seemed to me way too high maintenance, way too complicated, way too dramatic, way too loose. And not necessarily in the sexual sense, although there was that, too. The times I wanted to throw my iPad across the room were times where Pen was putting up with Cara's really bad behavior. What kept me reading was reading about Pen's grief.)

After the completion of the novel, before the reader's guide, there was A Conversation with Emma Donoghue.
When you wrote Hood, what were you hoping readers would see in it? And how did you envision readers reacting to Pen and Cara?
I was aiming high: I wanted to write a lesbian romance that readers of all stripes would care about. I hoped that the universality of grief would compensate for the specificity of the lesbian identity, and that Pen and Cara's flawed but persistent relationship would be interesting even to readers who had never lived anything like it.
As far as I'm concerned, Donoghue hit the mark with the grief. And that was enough for me.

I gave this book 4 stars on goodreads. Normally that would mean that I'd recommend this book to most. Because some readers might be put off by a lesbian romance and because others prefer not to escape into a book about grief, this for sure isn't a book for everyone. In the end, I'm glad I stuck with it.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

nine, ten: a September 11 story

For an adult, nine, ten: a September 11 story by Nora Raleigh Baskins is a quick read full of wonderful evocative language like that which was used in the prologue. Her writing really brought me back to 9/11/01 as well as 9/11/02.

For a ten to twelve year old - who was born years after the 9/11 attacks, nine, ten: a September 11 story is a simple, straightforward, well-written novel depicting the days leading up to the tragedy and the impact the attacks had on 4 middle school students. One girl is a Muslim, one of the boys is a troubled orphan living with his grandmother in Brooklyn. The other girl has moved with her family to California, although at the time of the move, her mother needed to be in New York City to attend a meeting. I think I remember reading that the mother was working at or with Cantor Fitzgerald. The final boy lives in Shanksville, PA with his family and whose father died a tragic death months before.

What's perfect about this book is that it's not about the attacks. It's about what the lives of these four young people was like on September 9th and 10th... and the 11th. And the changes that have occurred in their lives over the year that follows. The descriptions of the schools on September 11th was so spot on as were Baskins' depictions of the relationships those students had to their classmates.

If you have a young person in your life whom you'd like to give a sense of what 9/11 was all about, this is a wonderful book for that purpose and I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 21, 2017

One of the best, most evocative first pages of a novel I have ever read

I was about halfway through reading Barkskins, an 800+ page saga by Annie Proulx when the e-book expired off my iPad. I quickly got through A Wrinkle in Time in spite of not loving that book.

I started browsing available e-books through the library's online catalog. I was looking for something to pop up that was on my "to be read" list, for something popular that I never got around to adding to my list or for something quick and easy. Stumbled across nine, ten: a September 11 story by Nora Raleigh Baskins, read the description, checked out the numerical rating on goodreads (4.05), checked it out and downloaded it.

Needing to get things done, I quickly glanced at the first page. It was the best, most evocative first page of a novel, children's literature or adult, that I have ever read. Quite possibly because my memories of September 11, 2001 will always include marveling over the color of the sky at the start of the day. A perfectly gorgeous blue sky no longer renders the same positive feeling that it did on that morning. But will there ever be a sky as gorgeous as the one that morning? I will never forget looking through the window of my sky blue bathroom in my New York City suburban home as I was getting ready for work that morning. I will never forget appreciating how the sky blue hue to the sky was even more wonderful than the sky blue tone of my bathroom walls. The color of the sky that morning was that big a deal.

It was such a big deal that there's a whole section of the 9-11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center in New York City that is devoted to the color of the sky on that memorable day.

Baskins' prologue to nine, ten: a September 11 story brings me right back to that sky. I've reread the page several times, I've read it aloud to my husband, I hope to share it with anyone who will listen. And right now, I feel the need to share it with you.

Everyone will mention the same thing, and if they don't, when you ask them, they will remember. It was a perfect day.
More than eight million people lived in New York City that year, so of course, not everyone's day started perfectly. There was excitement and pain, anxiety and boredom, love and loneliness, anger and joy. But everyone who looked up that morning must have marveled, whether noting it out loud or not: What a perfect day.
 The sky was robin's-egg blue. There were one or two fluffy, almost decorative clouds. It was late-summer warm, so the air was still and clear, not the least bit humid. Warm the exact way you would set the temperature of the earth, if you could. Clear, with just enough breeze so you knew you were outside, breathing fresh air. People would remember that day with all sorts of adjectives: serene, lovely, cheerful, invigorating, peaceful, quiet, astounding, crystalline, blue.
Until 8:46 a.m., when the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center and nothing would ever be the same again.
But that has not happened yet.
If the rest of the book is as wonderful as the prologue, I'm in for an emotional ride.

A Wrinkle in Time, a reread

I first read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, the first book in a series of apparently 5 books, back in 1999 as part of a literacy class I took on the path to elementary school teacher certification. Of the books I read for that class, this is the one that I was only lukewarm about. Nearly 20 years later, I remain lukewarm.

Admittedly, I'm not a fantasy lover nor am I a fan of science fiction. In 1999, I learned that even though some of this middle grades novel are fantastical, it falls into the science fiction genre because much of the book is based on scientific fact. Or so I'm told. I have never had the desire to delve more deeply into the science behind the story.

The story has elements that I like. An insecure older sister with a close relationship to her child prodigy younger brother, a loving yet quirky mom. A first boy-girl relationship. I really, really wanted to like this book the second time around. I can see the appeal to others, but it just held no appeal to me.

As a fifth grade teacher, I wondered if this book was appropriate for my students. And years later, I still wonder the same thing. I found the language more difficult than most of my students would have been able to comprehend. Yet many of the fans of this novel are 4th to 6th graders. Even as an adult, there were some religious references that I don't quite understand.

It really wasn't until I read the introduction by Anna Quindlen titled An Appreciation of Madeline L'Engle that I fully understood the contrast between the real world and the dystopian society on the planet Camazotz. I think I didn't get that earlier because the stuff that I don't like about fantasy and science distracted me from that aspect.

I am, however, looking forward to the movie due to come out sometime in 2018. The trailer seems intriguing. Perhaps that's an adaptation of the story that I can like.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


It was only once I finished Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and went to update my goodreads that I realized I had never read the full description of the book. I knew it was a tale about two families who become joined spanning five decades. Commonwealth is the July title for my community book club. I would have started to read it regardless of the description. In retrospect, I wonder if knowing what was going to happen would have impacted the way I felt about the book.

On, I gave Commonwealth a 4-star reading. If half stars were possible, I would have given it 3-stars. There's something about Ann Patchett's language that draws me in. I love the way she weaves a story, sprinkling bits of foreshadowing here and there. Sometimes, there was just a little something that I can't put my finger of that made me not love the story. I liked it. Just didn't love it. Commonwealth is a character study. Yes, the plot moves forward and there is a climax and resolution at the end. But not a whole lot really happens and I frequently wondered where Patchett was taking the story. Perhaps my feelings about the book will change after next week's book club discussion. That's often the case.

The story starts in 1964 at the christening party of Franny, the daughter of Fix and Beverly, younger sister to Caroline. Albert, husband of Teresa, father of Cal, Holly, Jeanette, with Albie on the way, is married to Teresa. Yet he comes to Franny's christening party (not the christening, just the party) uninvited - and alone. He takes one look at Beverly and his world is changed forever.

Chapter 2 fast forwards the reader 50 years into the future. Fix is dying from cancer and Franny returns to California to take her father for one of his treatments. Over the remaining chapters, the story bounces back and forth between the lives of the blended families and points in the future. We learn a lot about the type of parents Fix, Beverly, Bert and Teresa are. We learn a lot about the type of kids Caroline, Franny, Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie are. What we never learn are any of the details of the divorces, just that they happened and that Bert and Beverly end up together. 

At times while reading, I'd think, Oh, this reminds me of The Nest (review here). A bunch of dysfunctional kids, a mother who isn't too involved in their adult lives. But this book is so much more. Family dynamics and the blended families are a big focus in the book. (All that had me wondering about what the relationship my kids will have with their stepbrothers in another 20 or 30 years.)

All 6 kids spend at least two weeks every summer together at Bert and Beverly's home in Virginia. They are often unsupervised and they go off on adventures that I wouldn't have dared gone on as a kid and that would have made me want to lock my own kids up if they'd done these types of things while I was asleep. A tragedy occurs that really changes the trajectory of the lives of each and every one of them.

About halfway through the five decades of the plot line Franny has dropped out of law school and is working as a waitress at the bar of a fancy Chicago hotel. Her all-time favorite author, Leon Posner, walks into the bar and starts flirting with her. It's just the start of a five year relationship. One of my favorite lines in the book comes during the scene where Franny and Leon meet. Leon asks Franny if she ever wanted to be a writer. "No," she said, and she would have told him. "I only wanted to be a reader." Boy, can I relate!

In Leo, Franny finally has someone who seems to truly listen to her. In bits and pieces, she tells him the story of her family. How they became a blended family and what they were like pre- and post- tragedy. Leo who seems to have been in a writing slump takes Franny's story and "makes it his own." The bestseller, "Commonwealth" is the result. It's still very obviously Franny's family's story. Who really has the right to tell this story? And who will feel pain as a result of Franny's family story being out there for anyone to read? 

Perhaps through my own personal lens of divorce and blended families, I was particularly drawn to those parts of the story. In some ways, it was like I was judging my divorce against the divorces of these characters. Loyalty towards one parent or the other is an important component in the characterization of all the children. Once again, I could certainly relate. 

In addition to divorce and blended families and different reactions to a shared tragedy, the book deals with finding your own path in life and what it's like to grow older or to have an aging parent.

If you enjoy novels with lyrical language with extremely well-developed characters, some whom you'll like, some whom you'll deplore and some whom you will merely tolerate, then Commonwealth might be a novel for you.