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Archive for the ‘Sense of place’ Category

21490991Matt Miller is a modern day teen in Brooklyn whose mother has passed away from cancer. Partly to start helping his father and partly to distract himself from the fact that everyone seems to pity him, Matt visits the “Cluck Bucket” to try apply for a job, when a emergency cleanup he witnesses convinces him food service is not for him. The local funeral director, Mr. Ray, who coincidentally oversaw his mother’s arrangements, offers him $30 a day to help out around the funeral home when they run into each other this fateful day at the chicken joint. The next day Matt reports after school and helps Mr. Ray set up flowers, receptions, and handle basic arrangements. As Matt’s father descends into drink, Matt becomes both more independent and connected to more people in his community through his work at the home.

The novel chronicles Matt’s coming of age through his work, mentoring by Mr. Ray, and a new friend. This is also a satisfying story about how a young man grows up as a part of his community by opening himself up to new experiences and responsibilities, strengthening himself and, in small ways, his community. In this book we see not only the Brooklyn that challenges, but also the Brooklyn that supports–a refreshing change from the often one-sided negative portrayals in urban fiction of city neighborhoods.

The Boy in the Black Suit moves along at a leisurely pace, and is written with some great descriptions and unique turns of phrase (were I not listening to the audiobook in my car, I’d have written them down). Without dragging, Reynolds lovingly details his characters and the neighborhood, making them real.  An added layer of authenticity comes from the very natural narration by Corey Allen on audio. Some of the coincidences and the neatly-tied ending were the only pieces of the story that did not feel realistic, but these are small criticisms in comparison to the quality of the work overall. This is a novel version of the male coming-of-age story that had me caring about the characters and invested in the story.

I recommend The Boy in the Black Suit to fans of Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk, and Walter Dean Myers’ young adult fiction. This book will be enjoyed by the more thoughtful young adult reader of realistic fiction, and by all ages of readers who enjoy character-driven stories with a strong sense of place.

Check the WRL catalog for The Boy in the Black Suit as an audiobook on CD

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maronReaders who enjoy police procedurals and are looking for stories of justice in the New South will find a lot to enjoy in Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Maron sets her books in contemporary North Carolina (like fellow writer Michael Malone). Over the course of the series, Judge Knott has to address the same problems and concerns—racial and social divides, economic inequality, etc.—that face Malone’s Police Chief Cuddy Mangum. Maron does not shy away from addressing challenging issues in contemporary society.

The problems that Judge Knott faces are often rooted in the evils of the past. Family and community play important roles in both the life of Judge Knott and in the stories. Maron’s novels are straight ahead mysteries, with engaging characters and interesting plots. This is an excellent series for readers interested in contemporary crime writing, issues in the New South, or police procedurals. Start with Bootlegger’s Daughter.

Check the WRL catalog for Bootlegger’s Daughter.

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jacketDespite being abandoned by her Danish mother when she was an infant and her Chilean immigrant father’s absence working as an international airline pilot, Maya was raised by her grandparents with spirited enlightenment and fiercely bolstering love. She was propped to have sound character, and her future held so much promise, until her Popo died when she was fifteen. Popo was her Nini’s second husband, but his presence meant the world to Maya. He had promised, “I swear I’ll always be with you.” Popo was a remarkably attentive surrogate parent to Maya, but following his death, whatever threads held her in check were unraveling at an alarming rate. The trio formed with her two girlfriends styled themselves as the “Vampires” and challenged each other to commit increasingly risky criminal acts and venture into dangerous sexual territory. By the time Maya is nineteen and living on the streets of Las Vegas, by the time she phones home, she’s on the run from criminals and the law. As she’s ushered onto a plane to exit the country and ride out the danger, her grandmother hands her a notebook for writing out her troubles as a tool for recovery, or as her Nini says it,

take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them.

In the audiobook version I enjoyed, as the narrator began speaking in the voice of the 19-year-old female main character in Maya’s Notebook, she sounded far too mature, using unrealistic vocabulary and sounding too worldly. Soon, however, that didn’t matter because I was spellbound by Maya Vidal’s troubled past. She’d experienced complex problems and was running from drug lords, international criminals, and the FBI, and she comes from a highly unusual family; clearly her life was more complicated than an average teen girl’s. She was sent by her Chilean grandmother, her Nini, to Chiloé Island, perfect as a place for banishment or exile, to ride out the danger with an old friend of Nini’s, Manuel Arias. Manuel is a man with a mysterious and painful past as well. The narrative floats easily between Maya’s present in Chiloé and her past in Berkeley, California, then a rehab academy in Oregon, then in Las Vegas where she reaches the darkest pit of her degradation and suffering. Just when you think her story has been told already, it just gets deeper and more layered.

Maya’s Notebook is an Adult Fiction title which would likely appeal to many older teens, but the book contains very graphic scenes of criminality, violence (both sexual and drug-related), sexuality, and extreme drug use. It’s available in the WRL collection via regular print, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and in large print.

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JacketI wrote about the Western Into the Savage Country, which explores the idea of a man going West to prove himself worthy of his father and of a woman he wanted. Today’s book, Crossing Purgatory, explores a different reason for a man to go West: to escape a ruined life back East. It’s also set later in the 19th century, during a time when immigrants, would-be traders, and farmers seeking tracts of their own land set out into dangerous territory with little idea what to expect.

Thompson Grey is a successful farmer in the dark and deep soil of Indiana, but without the capital to expand his holdings. Returning from a trip to raise funds, he discovers that a tragedy has taken his entire family. Grey blames himself, and goes into exile. Along the trail and at the place he breaks his journey, he constantly drives himself with physical labor to blot out his terrible memories.

Almost by accident he attaches himself to a small party, each member of which has suffered tragedy or thwarted hope. Grey holds himself apart, but still becomes an accidental pillar of a group of homesteaders. Through his encounters we come to see the arbitrary nature of death, and the consequences of failure in the early West.

Although the Purgatory is a real river and a significant setting of the story, the river itself is only a stand-in for the searing examination of one man’s conscience and the torments he inflicts upon himself out of guilt. As we accompany Grey on his desperate journey of expiation, we come to hope that his self-loathing will give way to some form of acceptance and peace. But Gary Schanbacher’s storytelling and characters make that journey a difficult  and ultimately rewarding one for us.

Check the WRL catalog for Crossing Purgatory

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Sea of PoppiesIn south and east Asia in the nineteenth century, opium was everything, not just a drug that had a social impact on society, but the basis of a large economy and the source of fortune for colonial empire builders. That’s the world where Amitav Ghosh sets his epic historical trilogy that begins with Sea of Poppies.

One has to enjoy being immersed in a new and complicated setting to enjoy these books. As the story opens, we quickly meet many characters: a young wife whose ex-soldier husband is so addicted that he can no longer work his job in the opium factory, their low-caste neighbor who is a gigantic ox-cart driver, a mulatto American seaman making a surprising rise in the world, an orphaned Frenchwoman, a somewhat pampered raja whose riches and position have become precarious, and many others. As these characters come from many social levels, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations, even their language is a riot of different styles, jargon, and levels of formality. It’s a rich story that engages all of the senses and hurls the readers headlong into a very different time and place.

My advice? Enjoy the swim. Use the glossary to solve your worst confusions and let the novel flow forward. It eventually coalesces, as all of our major characters find their way to the Ibis, a ship crossing the sea to China where some go as criminals, some as coolie workers, and others as soldiers to fight in the Opium Wars. On the ship, their stories come together into a more central strand. Ghosh has begun a masterwork, an epic tale about an epic subject that most readers won’t find familiar, featuring character types they haven’t before encountered. It works because it is an involving story and its hard not to sympathize with the plights of the characters. The language is lush and finishes the trick: transporting the reader successfully away.

The story continues with River of Smoke and is due to conclude with Flood of Fire later this year.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Poppies

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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WinnieAnyone coming from Winnipeg is well aware that the most famous of all bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, was named after that Canadian city. Many people know that the real Christopher Robin visited the real Winnie Bear at London Zoo, but London is thousands of miles away from Winnipeg, so the connection back to Canada is not well-known, even to fans of the Bear of Little Brain. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh sets out to change this grave lack!

For the youngest of readers as well as for the staunchest of fans the book does a wonderful job of capturing the amazing details of Winnie Bear’s life. It all started during World War I when a Canadian solider, Harry Colebourn, impulsively bought an orphaned bear cub when his troop train stopped briefly in Ontario. Despite the astonishment and doubts of his officers he promised to look after their new, small, brown mascot, named Winnipeg after their regiment’s home city. Harry was a veterinarian and his job was looking after the army’s horses and to his surprise Winnie fitted in well with the normally skittish horses. Harry’s regiment took Winnie along with them on their troop ship to England, but thought France would be too dangerous for the small bear, so Winnie lived out his days at London Zoo, as a bear so friendly that children were allowed to ride on his back.

Warmly illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss, this short book is a must-read for Winnie-the-Pooh fans of all ages. It is great for the whole family to share as older readers will enjoy the author’s note and pore over the historic photographs of the real bear and his real people. Very young Winnie-the-Pooh fans will be fascinated by the connection between their bear who is a toy and a real wild animal.

Check the WRL catalog for Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

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AirthThis is a mystery which will appeal to fans of Charles Todd’s detective Ian Rutledge. Like Rutledge, the main character, John Madden, is a Scotland Yard detective struggling with shell shock in the aftermath of World War I. He is called to a small village in Surrey where an entire family has been murdered.

As he works with local police, he is bothered by the meticulous planning that appears to have gone into the massacre and starts to suspect that this is not the killer’s first murder. With help from the local police constable, the comely female village doctor, and an Austrian psychologist, Madden slowly develops a portrait of the suspect: a former soldier and psychopath who is escalating at an alarming rate. He has his next victim picked out, and Madden’s challenge is to find out who and where before it’s too late.

Although comparisons to Rutledge will probably draw Charles Todd’s readers to this title, there are major differences. Madden’s demons are a little more straightforward than Rutledge’s, and the overall atmosphere is more optimistic. Airth allows healing and happiness to dangle within his protagonist’s reach, whereas Rutledge’s fans often wonder when his creator is going to give him a break already.

The psychological aspects will also appeal to fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series.

Check the WRL catalog for River of Darkness

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hausfrauPoet Jill Alexander Essbaum transits into the fiction genre with the precision of Swiss clocks and indeed Swiss trains — ushering in a new Madame Bovary, an Anna Karenina for the 21st century. Her name is Anna Benz, and she lives in Zürich with the Swiss banker she met in America.
“It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time.”
Anna doesn’t know how to drive her family’s car. She barely knows a soul beyond her mother-in-law, three children, and a few acquaintances; she maintains no contact with American relatives. Anna barely speaks German, endures life with no fire of spirit, and performs her duties as spouse and parent through unvaried routine, weekly circuiting her usual shopping points. Following initial bewilderment nine years ago, she has mastery over the intricacies of Zürich’s rail network. The author shows us Anna’s clumsiness occasionally, making her so real. She dresses impeccably, even fashionably— her clothes seem to me like an attempt at self-preservation–yet usually has no place to go, no plans, no one to see.
Anna was a good wife, mostly.
Anna has slipped into infidelity, incapable of suppressing the least suggestion by each man in a series of extramarital trysts. She fails to sever these liaisons against her better wisdom. Erotic reverie is a drug that distracts and pacifies her. The narration gradually reveals Anna’s mind, what she’s read, heard or wonders, her moods, her perception of others’ moods. Essbaum invites us into Anna’s hollow soul where we are initially uncomfortable yet intrigued, appalled yet sorrowed, anxious yet horrified at her inability to accept, embrace, or even experience a life many might feel grateful to live. Clearly, Anna withholds details from her Jungian analyst Doktor Messerli; yet, the reader glimpses truth in Anna’s actions, in a diary entry:
The utter sameness just drags on….I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct….
Anna’s insightful internal voice show her to be intelligent, discerning, never oblivious yet she finds no will to extricate herself. Then, Anna remarkably makes a genuine female friend. Mary represents for Anna an unexpected opportunity to confide in someone trustworthy, to explore possibilities, but does she avail of it?
The accurate phrasing of painful emotions will have many readers relating easily to Anna’s psyche despite the fact that they’ll wish to shake Anna into shaping up and reviving herself from the mess she’s made. I absolutely loved its style of presentation, and its use of Swiss words intrigued me and enhanced the setting. Once you read the end, you realize how exquisitely tuned the poet author has made it and immediately return to the first page and begin it again, with Anna. I look forward to more good things to come from Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Check the WRL catalog for Hausfrau

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heroRefreshing and reinventing old superheroes has become somewhat fashionable recently, with rather mixed results. Some characters, like Batman, have seen so many iterations that it is difficult to separate them all, or find new ground to cover without being completely repetitive or utterly discarding canon. One good thing that has come out of this trend is the resurrection of old characters that never caught on, but were worthwhile for one reason or another.

The Green Turtle was a World War II superhero with a very limited run. He was created by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian-Americans to enter the American comic book industry, a business with limited diversity, especially back in 1944. Hing obscured the face of his protagonist so that, even if he was not allowed to make his character officially of Chinese descent, there is enough obfuscation for the reader to make their own decision about his heritage.

It is this character that has been brought back to life in The Shadow Hero. Living in Chinatown are two immigrants and their son, Hank. Each parent brings with them shadows of their old life and unfulfilled expectations from their new life. Hank is the reluctant heir to a melting pot of their issues. There certainly isn’t any early indication of his superhero future, as he is quite content to work in his father’s grocery store, nursing the hope to eventually pass it on to his own son someday. But no superhero comes to being without some trauma, and his parent’s legacies eventually, violently, come to alter their offspring’s future in unimagined ways.

Gene Luen Yang, author of the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese, brings a strong sense of time, place, and culture in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero story where family and cultural heritage is this central to the creation and continued development of the character. The people surrounding Hank encompass a wide range of types without sinking in to caricature. His mother is especially complicated, being infuriating and relatable in equal measure. Parents want what’s best for their child, but so often their view of what is best is founded on what they perceive to be missing from their own life.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels, superhero stories, and anyone with an interest in stories about family dynamics.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Hero.

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Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara
Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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epitaphBack in 2012, I wrote about Mary Doria Russell’s superb historical novel Doc, where she relates the backstory of the gunfight at OK Corral, looking at the early lives of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I am happy to report that she does an equally excellent job in her newest novel Epitaph, bringing the story forward through the incident in Tombstone and beyond.

As in the earlier story, Russell focuses on characters and there are lots of them in this story. While not quite as complicated as a Russian novel, the cast here is large and you have to pay attention. This is in part because of the fluid nature of the relationships between the characters–friends, or at least drinking buddies, one day and then deadly enemies the next.

In many ways this is a sadder and darker story than Doc. Where the first story was haunted by premonitions of death, death is constantly present in Epitaph. There is also the pain of seeing relationships that seemed so strong in Doc, especially between Wyatt and Holliday, be tried, and sometimes found wanting. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the Western history, or in the study of human nature, will find much to enjoy in this somber sequel.

Check the WRL catalog for Epitaph

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martianIf ever there was a book guaranteed to make you wish you’d paid attention in high school science classes, The Martian is it.

The story’s hero, Mark Watney, must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder with a black cat on another Friday the 13th. When the story begins, he is stranded on Mars, thought dead by his crew and mission control. A fierce Martian windstorm has forced his exploration team to evacuate the surface, and an accident during the process destroyed the life support telemetry of his suit. Coming to and finding himself alone on the planet and discovering that he has no radio to contact the crew or NASA nearly crushes Mark. But a creative and indomitable spirit keeps him going as he reconfigures the living quarters, begins working out how he’ll survive until the next planned landing – which is 3000 kilometers away and a couple of years off – and looks for ways to communicate with Earth.

Most of the story is told in first person through the logs Watney keeps of his work and experiments in survival. These are not official or officious, but personal, wisecracking, and profane. Sometimes the audience is everyone off the planet Mars and sometimes it seems to be himself as he works out the details of his extraordinary plans. (If the space programs of the world would let their astronauts communicate in a voice like Watney’s, there would probably be more support for interplanetary exploration.)

However, Mark’s efforts to communicate with Earth turn the story’s focus back to our home planet, and to the committed, skillful, and highly individualistic people who will try to rescue Mark. How they deal with the enormous personal and engineering obstacles involved make for as compelling a story as Mark’s survival epic.

In one sense, I suppose the first person to be born or to die in a new place can be called its first citizen. (The terminology of European expansionism in human history aside.) In this case, we are rooting for Mark to not become the first Martian, but in the end of course he does. How he gets to that place is an intensely adventurous and gripping blend of hard science and science fiction. And it forces me to understand that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Mark’s situation. I’ll take the desert island scenario any day.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Martian

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windThe Harmattan is a fierce wind that blows across sub-Saharan Africa, stripping vegetation, drying out watering places, and causing health problems for the inhabitants of the Sahel, as the region is known. The dust clouds it creates can block the sun, and have even been strong enough to lift sand particles which are carried by trade winds as far west as Florida. In Jeffrey Tayler’s skilled hands, the Harmattan becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable problems that affect countries across the widest and poorest part of continent.

Jeffrey Tayler, who served in the Peace Corps and writes for The Atlantic, traveled from Chad to Senegal, encountering first-hand the ancient traditions and modern troubles that define Africa for many Westerners. Fluent in both Arabic and French, he was able to speak with all types of people without the filter of an interpreter. These encounters turned up both superstition and up-to-the minute awareness of international affairs (many people weren’t shy about criticizing the Iraq War, then two years old), but were for the most part genial and even-handed. One tradition, that of hospitality, has not diminished even in the face of desertification, unrest, and religious extremism.

Even ten years after Angry Wind was published it remains a timely read. Boko Haram’s power base is in the Sahel. Niger holds the last spot on the Human Development Index. Mali suffered a revolution co-opted by an al Qaeda offshoot and had to have French assistance to quell it. Chad is overwhelmed by refugees from Darfur, and has a history of coups d’etat that could destabilize the central African region that surrounds it.  And history dominates it all – Tayler finished his journey in the House of Slaves on the Atlantic Coast of Senegal, where men, women, and children from the region would have their final views of Africa. Anyone who wants background on this essential region of a continent headed for its own maturity owes it to themselves to read Tayler’s journey.

Check the WRL catalogue for Angry Wind

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skylightJessica wrote about Jose Saramago‘s works some time ago, citing his dark social satire and language as reasons for his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn’t read the two she wrote about, but did read The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, and All the Names. Now, his final work, which is also his first, has been published.

Skylight is the story of six apartments in a single building, each housing people who couldn’t be more different from each other, and nearly all with families divided by their own differences. While disputes among neighbors are a staple of news, drama, and comedy, in the real world, clashes within families are truly more fraught, and so it is with this novel. Skylight is an appropriate name for the way he structured the book, which could be read as a collection of short stories, but which also has a novel’s unity. Like a skylight, it illuminates various parts of the building in turn, revealing the weaknesses and strengths of each resident.

This is not to say that Skylight is perfect, but it is far more mature than a reader can expect a first novel to be. Perhaps that’s because Saramago wrote it in 1953 at the age of 32 after varied experiences as a laborer, office worker, and opponent of the repressive government in a politically-charged Portugal. Perhaps it’s because we have the luxury of knowing where his future writing would go. Saramago’s next novel wouldn’t be published until 1971, and in that time he sharpened both the language and keen eye that won him honors around the world. And those who admire his work should try the writings of JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Raymond Carver or, more recently, Damon Galgut.

Check the WRL catalogue for Skylight

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swanWhatever happened to legendary Worlds’ Fairs and International Expositions? Some left their mark on the landscape. Some became cultural icons long after they ended. Some turned up in unexpected places. Was the idea killed by the Cold War, by television, by this?

For the characters in Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola, the 1898 World’s Fair is the centerpiece of their lives. ‘Ferret’ Skerritt, ventriloquist, literary illusionist, and minor prestidigitator, narrates the tale of that summer, when he fell in love with the mysterious Cecily, discovered the secret she carried in her carpetbag, lost her to millionaire Billy Wakefield, and escaped in a hot air balloon to become the spiritual center of desperate Nebraska farmers.

Like most World’s Fairs, Omaha’s is an illusion, and illusion is at the heart of the story. The gliding alabaster swans are poorly painted and chipped; the marvelous buildings are caked in glass fragments to make them glisten; and daylight reveals the midway’s tawdriness. Everything is false. Except Ferret’s love for Cecily, which he knows is true. Unfortunately, other people are better at manipulating reality or creating illusions far more intricate than Ferret’s basic honesty can conjure.

There’s a sense of doom that pervades the story, but it ends on a redemptive note. Along with the universe of marvelous characters and settings that Schaffert creates, that ultimately makes it an uplifting read.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Swan Gondola

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eagleReaders’ Digest Condensed Books takes it on the chin from many quarters – dumbed down books stripped down for readers who place more value on popular titles than quality reads. Looking back at them now, it seems that Readers’ Digest was the only transition from kids’ books to “adult” literature I had access to. My brother and sisters and I would check the mail every day, and when that box turned up it was Katy, bar the door. And while we were waiting there was always the shelf full of previous collections we could grab. Now, most of the books weren’t memorable, but others set me on the path of my pleasure reading, and where’s the harm in that?

Once an Eagle was a transition from my childish understanding of war to a more sober take on its dark and dirty side. The story of one man’s Army career from private in the futile search for Pancho Villa to retired general seeing the early signs of the coming war in Vietnam, it is also the story of the American military through the 20th century.

Sam Damon grows up in a small Midwestern town, hearing tales of glorious and deadly battles from veterans of the Civil War and the Philippine American War. He joins as a private soldier at a time when the Army was considered a refuge for drunks, brutes, and incompetents, but those men become the cadre around which newly-minted civilian soldiers became an Army in 1917. Damon is a powerful leader, inspiring loyalty and pulling reluctant men into his fearless wake. He frightens them, though – in battle he is savage and coldly brilliant, with the mythical luck of the born warrior. His successes earns him medals and brevet promotion, but his first loyalty is with his men. He also comes up against Courtney Massengale, a bloodless, politically-connected West Pointer who sees war as a series of staff exercises, and whose time-in-grade will keep him a half-step ahead of Sam throughout their parallel careers.

After 1918, Sam and his new family begin the grinding tour of moving from one camp to another to study his craft. With the world determinedly turning its back on the horror of the recent war, the Army once again becomes a backwater. But such backwaters creates a sense of community and continuity in their denizens, forming deep friendships and uneasy truces between enemies. It isn’t just the men, either – their wives are their allies, spies, and bulwarks against the maneuvering that might destroy a man’s career. There are also the common soldiers, rootless, bored, underpaid, and kept in line by relentless, sometimes cruel discipline.

Then war comes again, and the officers who have languished in rank are suddenly given armies to train and command. Damon’s war is in the Pacific, where repeated amphibious assaults give way to jungle fighting against an enemy that does not surrender.  As an infantry commander on the beach, Damon has to rely on a Navy with its own agenda, a fledgling Army Air Corps, and a superior officer – Massengale – who still doesn’t see the blood and death his orders cause. Damon must call on his innate skills as a warrior, as a leader, and as a commander who must place professional duty above personal sacrifice. In the wake of the war, with no political patronage, those qualities get him put on the shelf. Until he’s needed to investigate a local brushfire war threatening American interests.

Myrer’s control over both his characters and their situations makes it easy to keep up with, even care about, the myriad of people who must populate a book about armies and war. Even after so long, I’m pretty sure I could even tell you what characters appear in what parts of the story and what their relationship to Damon is. Myrer’s descriptions of battle are detailed and horrible enough to strip the shine off the techo-thrillers and are reminders that war is, after all, friend only to the undertaker. I’m pretty sure Sam Damon would agree with Edwin Starr.

Revisiting the book as an adult, I made an interesting discovery about the condensation process Readers’ Digest used on this particular story. A significant section that has Damon travelling to China to observe the Communist guerrilla war against the Japanese. A heroic Chinese commander teaches him about both ideology and tactics, striking a sympathetic chord in both character and reader. That section was completely missing from the digested version, possibly because, up until recently, Reader’s Digest was a leading anti-Communist voice in American society. On the other hand, that same conservative approach took a lot of sex out of other books they condensed, which probably made it more palatable for the parents of pre-teens and adolescents like me and my siblings. Middlebrow? Maybe. But re-reading The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice wouldn’t have led me to travel through the lives and stories of so many different people and kept me reading until it became an indispensable part of my life.

Check the WRL catalog for Once an Eagle

Sam Elliott also starred as Sam Damon in an NBC miniseries that follows the novel pretty closely.

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yummyIn 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was executed by fellow members of his gang. He was 11. What was his crime? In the eyes of his killers, he was bringing too much police and media attention to their part of town. Eager to prove himself to older gang members, he had shot wildly into a group of kids playing in the street, killing a 14-year-old girl named Shavon. Yummy’s murderers were only 14 and 16 years old themselves. The shocking nature of his death as well as his life landed his mugshot on the cover of Time magazine and a mention by President Bill Clinton in a speech addressing the three-fold increase in homicides in Chicago since 1980.

What would drive a child to become a hardened gang member at such a young age? Author G. Neri uses a fictitious narrator, named Roger, who is the same age as Yummy, as his vehicle for exploring the cause and provocation for his conduct. The story unfolds with few surprises: abuse, abandonment, and a lack of supervision that left Yummy to find his own amusement out on the streets. Arrested for the first time when he was 8, he quickly came up against a shortcoming of the state laws regarding juveniles. Since no juvenile could be convicted of a felony, gangs eagerly took advantage of this law, using young men to do hard crimes with no harsh consequences. Yummy was just one of a veritable army of children living on the streets and committing crimes to please their gang leaders.

Were Yummy and other juveniles in the same situation monsters or children? The authors don’t pretend to have a pat answer. Finding a solution to the spiral of violence would be ideal, but first the problem itself needs to be understood. Human troubles are always fraught with nuance and are hostile to simple resolutions. Instead, the book aims to shed light on the lives of the different players, in order to bring some humanity to what is otherwise just a grim set of statistics on youth gang life.

Designated a Coretta Scott King Award honor book in 2011, this title is a tough read, but the author brings a lot of honesty and reality to the dramatization of these real events. Recommended for readers with an interest in graphic novels, American history, and social justice.

Check the WRL catalog for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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