Friday, March 24, 2017

News of the World: Paulette Jiles

Since I'm in two book clubs, I often read books from someone else's list. It's worth it to me to be part of a community of readers, even if my reading selections are not solely my own. In fact, I make some wonderful discoveries that way. This week has been one of those serendipitous reading experiences as I read Paulette Jiles' newest novel News of the World. When I stopped in Parnassus to browse titles, one of my favorite bookstore employees Nathan told me that this had been the favorite of one of the publishing company representatives who had spent some time working with them in the store.

Since most of my reading started late at night, I got off to a slow start with this one, but then suddenly Jiles had me hooked, and I found myself reading late into the night, knowing my alarm would be sounding at 5:30 a.m.

The protagonist Captain Kidd is a Civil War veteran, now in his seventies, living in a quite uncivilized Texas, where the political division reminds me of--writes and encourages them to join him. Circumstances have also forced him to close his printing business, so he makes a paltry living going from small town to small town, renting a hall, and reading selections from newspapers around the world, charging a dime a listener.

As the story opens, he's approached by a freighter who has a ten-year-old white girl who was kidnapped four years before by the Kiowa who killed her family. She's been ransomed, but the freighter, a black man, knows he can't risk traveling with the girl to her German aunt and uncle, so he convinces Kidd to return the girl.
Jiles takes the reader along town after town as Kidd, whom the girl calls "Kep-dun" faces double challenges: finding a way to communicate with the girl he calls Johanna and avoiding the threat of Indians and outlaws along their route. The girl, who considers herself Kiowa, fights his attempts to civilize her, but the two warm to one another during their forced time together.

Over the course of the narrative, Jiles develops these two characters and the mixed bag of good and bad folk they encounter without hokey tricks or stereotypes. The setting is described so clearly, I felt as though I had traveled all the way from Wichita Falls to the girl's first home. 

Even the author's notes at the end sent me turning back through the book, retracing my steps--and those of the "Kep-dun" and "Cho-henna"--back and forth across Texas. I have my book club to thank for the delightful journey.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My YA Fix: The Sun Is Also a Star

    I have long been an unapologetic Young Adult fiction fan. When I taught high school, I found it helpful to know what my students might be interested in reading--and then to keep a good supply on the shelves in my classroom. To be honest, though, I mainly read them because I enjoy them. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, lots of books by Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger crossed my field of vision, particularly since I heard them read at NCTE conferences over the years.

    Nicola Yoon's new novel The Sun Is Also a Star caught my attention in time to take the audiobook on a recent road trip. Binge listening worked perfectly, since the book itself takes place, except for the epilogue, in less than a twenty-four-hour period.  Yoon--or Fate--throws together two characters on a particular significant day.  Natasha is a Jamaican immigrant in her high school senior year when her father's DUI brings the family's undocumented status to the attention of authorities, and they are going to be deported that evening. Natasha is determined to find some way to stop the deportation.

   Daniel is a first-generation Korean, the second son on his way to an admissions interview for Yale, which his parents consider the "second-best college." After living in the shadow of his older brother--who has recently had to leave Harvard, Daniel isn't so sure he wants to follow his parents' plan for his life to go to medical school.

  Daniel wants to be--is--a poet; Natasha, on the other hand, wants to pursue science, looking at everything from a pragmatic, logic-centered perspective. A series of coincidences bring them together as they collide on their way to their two destinations, Natasha to a lawyer purported to be the best at fighting Deportation, Daniel on his way to the interview--with the same man.

  They end up moving through New York City together, with stops at the Black Hair Products store run by  Daniel's father and Natasha's apartment, where her family is packing to leave.

  Yoon weaves in chapters from other characters, giving the back story, for example, to the security guard at the Immigration office, the lawyer both are meeting, a taxi driver, and Natasha's father, a frustrated actor who feels his family responsibility has ruined his chances at his dream career.

  No lightweight romance, the story had me genuinely caring about the two protagonists and their families--and even the minor characters that cross their paths. Soon touches on all kinds of current topics with a light hand, rendering the characters three dimensional instead of stereotypes.

  One clever thread through the story is the article I had read earlier in the New York Times reporting research claiming people could fall in love by answering a series of questions and looking deeply into one another's eyes for four minutes. Whether the questions themselves made Natasha fall in love with Daniel or not, I found myself loving them both.


Friday, March 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow: My Favorite Recommendation

It's not unusual for me to start encouraging others to read a book before I'm even finished reading it. Some books just seem perfect for  my reading friends. When I started Amor Towles' latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, I felt that way--but even more so. I was ready to recommend it to my book club based on just a few chapters. I called my mother and told her to read it. Meanwhile, I kept reading, and I was not disappointed. This book is probably my favorite in awhile, which  is particularly significant because it's not dark, disturbing, or esoteric. It's not one of those books that some people just won't get.

The book opens during the Bolshevik Revolution as Count Alexander Rostov is called before a tribunal for the simple crime of being an aristocrat. Either despite or because of the measure of fame he's achieved through poetry, his judges decide that instead of putting him before a firing squad, they will sentence him to house arrest at Moscow's Metropol Hotel. The Count has already been living there for awhile, but he is moved out of his suite and forced to "downsize"--settling into a small attic room. Towels presents the details so clearly over the course of the tale, I imagine I've visited the Count's room.

During the course of his stay--the novel covers at least thirty years--he encounters delightful characters among the guests and the staff of the hotel, some ambiguous, and some straight-out antagonists. He first meets Nina, a young girl staying with her family at the Metropol who asks him about "rules for princesses." He also befriends the wait staff at the finest restaurant in the hotel--and then joins them.

Nashville novelist Ann Patchett has admitted that she just writes the same book over and over: a group of people, nothing alike, are thrown together. Towles has tales the formula and perfected it. Readers will hate "the Bishop," an inept waiter who, via the Peter Principle, manages to climb the management ladder at the Metropol. They will find delightful Anna Urbanova, the Soviet actress with her dubious back story, will  fall in love with Sofia, whom the Count raises as his daughter, and they will be amused by the Russian who comes to Rostov to be tutored in languages and culture, but ends up Brando watching films, particularly Casablanca. 

From his limited point of view, Count Rostov has a window view on Moscow--and the world. His knowledge of food, wine, and music is eclipsed by his understanding of human nature. Towles has produced a multi-layer narrative that does much more than charm the reader. The author also gives just enough of Alexander's past, especially the story of his sister's death, to give even more insight into the man.

For now, I anticipate happily the opportunity to discuss the book with others--and then to pick it up and read it one more time.