15 January 2018

Book Review: Love by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Loren Long

Although this book is just published this week, I had the privilege a few months ago of listening to Newbery award-winning author Matt de la Peña and beloved illustrator of the Otis books Loren Long talk about their collaboration.  Their new book, Love, was a headliner for one of the breakfasts during the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA), and I think it’s safe to say there was nary a dry eye in the room by the time they concluded.

I don’t usually review picture books on this blog, but this is not your typical picture book. First, you’ve got the street cred (and literary cred) of this dynamic duo. Second, it’s a book that speaks directly to the fears and frustrations that have gripped our country since #45 was elected. Third, the subtext of this book is simply this: love is love is love.

Each full page spread speaks to a different demographic of America: the urban, the rural, the haves, the have-nots, the lonely, the contented, the single-parent and the multi-generational family. The thoughtful illustrations are lush with color and emotion, not shy about straying into darker interpretations of the text.

There’s been some chatter on the internet this week about an article in Time magazine by children’s book author extraordinaire, Kate DiCamillo called “Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad,” and in in the context of both children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, she says, “In loving the world, he [E. B. White] told the truth about it -- its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we are not alone.” Her words speak just as deeply to Love, a picture book that shows kids the different ways that love may manifest itself in their lives -- but also how it might leave their lives and break their hearts before they realize that it can also make them stronger.

My two favorite page spreads are these:

"And in time you learn to recognize
a love overlooked.
A love that wakes at dawn and
rides to work on the bus. 
A slice of burned toast tastes like love.

And the face staring back
in the bathroom mirror --
this, too, is love.

I think this lovely picture book will soon be taking its place among the pantheon of children’s picture book classics. It’s simple, but ultimately it’s revolutionary, too. Every library, be it school, public, or home library, should proudly cherish this addition. If ever a picture book could change a child’s life, I think this is the one.

13 January 2018

Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I first read Tayari Jones when she published Silver Sparrow a few years ago, where she grabbed me from the very first line (which you can read about here).  Thus it took very little persuading when the good folks at Algonquin emailed to ask me to take a gander at Tayari’s new novel, An American Marriage. While its opening line is compelling enough (“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.”), it’s the characters here who kept me reading feverishly into the night.

Meet Celestial and Roy, a young couple on the verge of having it all, who hail from very different backgrounds. Celestial is the beloved daughter of an upper middle class family outside of Atlanta, gifted with every privilege that love, money, and social capital can provide; Roy, on the other hand, is the adopted son of a hardscrabble father and mother piecing jobs together to keep enough food on the table and shoes on their feet in their Louisiana hamlet: “There was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.”

Their relationship is electrifying and intense, and they’re the vanguard of the New South, poised to set Atlanta on fire, driven by love and ambition in equal measure, when the unthinkable happens: a little over one year into their marriage, a white woman accuses Roy of breaking into her hotel room and raping her. Despite Celeste’s testimony that she was with her husband all night, the many character witnesses brought forth, and  the expensive attorney that Celeste’s family is able to pay for, the jury convicts Roy, sending him to prison for twelve years:

The judge paused and demanded that Roy bear this news on his feet. He stood again and cried, not like a baby, but in the way that only a grown man can cry, from the bottom of his feet up through his torso and finally through his mouth. When a man cries like that you know it’s all the tears that he was never allowed to shed, from Little League disappointment to teenage heartbreak, all the way to whatever injured his spirits just last year (p. 40).
The narrative chapters alternate mostly between Roy and Celestial’s points of view, and in the beginning they’re largely epistolary, told in letters back and forth after Roy is incarcerated. Eventually other characters take on the storytelling burden, including Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend and one of Roy’s former classmates at Spelman. While the book never loses its focus as an indictment of the system that imprisons black men at a terribly disproportionate rate compared to white men, the heart of this novel is the relationships that unfold: Roy’s and Celestial’s, of course, but also Celestial and her family, Roy and his family, Celestial and Andre, Andre and Roy, Celestial and her work, Roy and his cellmate...the various permutations go on.

This is a novel that examines love and loyalty and what it means to be family, scrutinizing the smallest details from multiple points of view. The writing is terrific, and I think that Tayari Jones makes particularly good use of metaphor throughout, and what’s more, she constantly shows generosity and sympathy to her entire cast of characters. It broke my heart more than once, and I think it will break yours, too. This book is not just going to loom large among books published this winter, it is going to be big.  BIG.

NB: This book will be published by Algonquin on February 6, 2018, but I recommend you put it in your reading queue now. 

09 January 2018

Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

It has been a long time since I’ve read a straight-up biography.  I read lots of narrative nonfiction in the forms of memoir, sure, and I even dabble in history and science.  But I’m trying to think of the last time I read a biography, and according to Goodreads, it was back in 2011 when I read Harriet Reisen’s book on Louisa May Alcott.  Reading Walter Isaacson’s incredible book on Leonardo da Vinci was a welcome reminder that good biographies on interesting subjects are well worth the time invested.

My Simon & Schuster rep gifted me with the audio book for my birthday late last fall, which was ideal now that I have a long enough commute to make listening to audio books worthwhile. It’s read by actor Alfred Molina, who does a great job, and the audio version comes with a separate CD full of PDFs of the art described in the book (presumably the digital audio also comes with downloadable images).  However, I was only two discs into the 17-disc set before I realized that I would also want the physical book, and I was fortunate that Simon & Schuster obliged by by sending me one of those, too. The book is beautiful, printed on heavy paper with full color plates.

I’ve never read Isaacson before, so I don’t know if this is a signature style or a one-off, but rather than employing a chronologically linear narrative, he employs a style that I’d call vignette-like.  This means that occasionally the narrative circles back to an earlier period of history, but with a subject who is as far removed from our time as Leonardo is, this makes sense to me.

Did I have much of an impression about Leonardo before tackling this book?  Not a big one. I took a survey of western heritage class in college that gave an overview of his art and I think it was a class in high school where I learned more about his bent for science and engineering, but other than a general impression that the term “Renaissance Man” might have been first used with him in mind, I couldn’t tell you a lot about the guy. My only personal experience was on a college choir trip to Milan, where we were able to view his fresco of The Last Supper in small groups.

Thus it was a total revelation to learn about this remarkable man with not just a towering intellect, but an insatiable curiosity about the world. Although he is probably best known today for his art (his Mona Lisa is quite possibly the most famous painting in the western world) Leonardo himself wished to be known as an engineer. Although not formally educated, he was a meticulous observer of nature and combining his curiosity with the scientific method means that he was decades, and in some cases centuries, ahead of his time.  There’s hardly a branch of science that didn’t interest him, and Isaacson explores Leonardo’s notebooks to share with the reader his groundbreaking research and theories for physics, optics, fluid mechanics, anatomy, geology, astronomy, even cosmology.

I also enjoyed the way Isaacson brings out the human side of Leonardo, quoting from his shopping lists, or describing his penchant for richly-colored tunics (fuchsia was a favorite) and for beautiful young men, or outlining why he opted for a vegetarian lifestyle.  And those times when Leonardo’s paths crossed with the Borgias, Machiavelli, Brunelleschi, or Michelangelo?  I actually said “whoa” out loud in my car when Molina was narrating those moments. Kind of a who’s who of Italian Renaissance history, eh?

This is a marvelous study of a man who, arguably, possessed the greatest mind of his time -- possibly the greatest mind of any time -- whose drive to always ask “why” should be an inspiration to every single reader. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

06 January 2018

Book (P)Review: Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles

Happy New Year, everybody! I’m not much into setting resolutions for myself these days.  Or rather, the whole “New Year, New You” mentality doesn’t hold much appeal for me, but I like the idea of being open to change and growth. The year 2017 brought a lot of changes into my life, including putting myself on the job market, and one of the most difficult personal challenges for me this year was bouncing back after each interview that culminated in some variation of, “You’re pretty nifty, Runner Up Candidate.” It’s been quite a while since I failed at something so important to me, but lately I’ve been ruminating on failure and what it can mean. While it’s true that I failed to secure an offer for the three positions I interviewed for last year, I learned something about myself with each one.  I got better with each interview, and I was lucky enough to get substantive feedback from two of the hiring managers to better place myself when the next opportunity comes along -- one of whom has even offered to help me look out for other, better suited positions. So with that in mind, what I’d like for 2018 is this: to remember that while failure is an important part of growth, it does not define me, or my worth. I also want to practice more kindness, both to myself and to others. And since I remember a time in the not-too-distant past where I actually enjoyed writing about my twin passions of books and travel, I thought it might be interesting getting back to that in 2018, too.

It turns out that it’s been quite some time since my last book review, which I posted in June 2016 about Homegoing, the best novel I read that year. Eighteen months almost to the day. Please forgive my rustiness here as I ease back into the world of book reviews.

The first book I completed this year is Jonathan Miles’ Anatomy of a Miracle.  His work wasn’t new to me, as I had started both of his previous novels, Dear American Airlines and Want Not, but hadn’t finished either one (less a criticism of them than simply being an occupational hazard).  This one I picked up at the urging of my sales rep, but I hadn’t read very far before I was hooked: this guy nailed -- I mean, absolutely nailed -- the south Mississippi setting.

Call it homesickness or nostalgia on my part, but I was extremely happy to revisit the Mississippi gulf coast of my youth in these pages, seeing through the eyes of Cameron Harris, a complicated young man whose life has been marked by tragedy: abandoned by his father, losing his best friend, the death of his mother, Hurricane Katrina and subsequently losing his home. As if that weren’t bad enough, he enlists in the army, gets sent to Afghanistan, and has the misfortune of getting a little too close to an old Soviet landmine. When Cameron returns to the US, it’s in a wheelchair.  His sister Tanya, as much parent to him as sibling, gives up everything to care for her paraplegic brother.

Four years later, strange things are afoot at their neighborhood convenience store, when Cameron’s nausea doubles him over in his chair and he leans forward to relieve it. The thing is, there is only so far he can lean forward without falling, and he somehow manages to get his feet underneath himself and stands up in the parking lot of the Biz-E-Bee. Nobody can explain it -- not Cameron or Tanya, not the medical community.

As you can imagine, the Harris home quickly becomes the epicenter of a multi-ring circus. In this most religious of red states, everybody wants to claim a piece of Cameron’s miracle, whether it’s the Republican party wanting Cameron (and by extension, God, of course) on their ticket or a pre-Vatican-II Catholic priest who uses Cameron for his own multi-layered agenda. TV interviews, social media prayer circles, pilgrims to the Biz-E-Bee, and a reality tv/mockumentary crew all descend on the scene, and the whole time Cameron and Tanya are just trying to get on with their lives, wanting to know the whys and wherefores of Cameron’s miracle.

While Anatomy is told in a journalistic fashion that strongly reminded me of the brilliant nonfiction book Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, in both style and scope, what interested me most was the characters, both major and minor: Cameron and Tanya, absolutely; but I also loved the Vietnamese couple who own the convenience store, the devil’s advocate attorney working for the Vatican (literally the advocatus diaboli) , the sergeant under whom Cameron served in the army, and the VA doctor handling Cameron’s case. Mostly, I loved the subtle indictment of people who choose the superficial over substance and the way Miles calls attention to bigotry of all stripes, but above all, I loved the way the author limns each character with the myriad contradictions that comprise this human experience. Beyond that, the writing is just terrific -- it’s not lush, but it’s precise and incredibly evocative in a way that perfectly serves the wide-lens, third person, journalistic POV.

Hogarth, a division of Penguin Random House, will publish this book in March, and I predict that this is the book that will make Jonathan Miles a household name, at least among those households with avid readers of literary fiction. I read an advance review copy provided by the publisher.