The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

part time indianI can’t remember the last time I rooted for a character the way I rooted for Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Sherman Alexie’s YA novel, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.

Junior is a member of the Spokane Tribe and lives with his parents, grandmother and older sister on the Rez. Without a drop of self-pity, Junior tells the reader that his “head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it” and that “the bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, ‘I want to go there.'”

Skinny, born with ten extra teeth, and prone to seizures, Junior is also determined, smart and really funny. He says, “With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.” He both stutters and lisps and so everyone calls him a retard. “Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?” he asks the reader. “We get beat up. Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club.”

As if Junior’s physical problems weren’t bad enough, Junior and his family are also very poor. They’re so poor, Junior often goes hungry. But, as he explains, “It’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”

His father is an alcoholic who often disappears on benders. His mother is slighty flakey, but also super smart. Junior is perfectly aware of the limitations that come from being an Indian on the rez.

…we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.

Strangely, none of this seems like whining coming from Junior’s mouth. It is what it is and he’s found ways to cope. For one thing, his best friend,  Rowdy, is the toughest kid on the reservation. For another thing, his parents are kind and loving and supportive. While it seems like there are too many obstacles in Junior’s way, the reader soon learns not to underestimate him.

An incident at school prompts a visit from one of his teachers and suddenly Junior has left the rez and is traveling 23 miles into a town to attend a white school where he has the chance to make something of himself. (But not without a lot of soul-searching about what it means to have to leave the rez behind and enter the white world.) But make something of himself, he does. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not getting a little va-klempt at Junior’s journey.

The back cover of my edition of The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian  says that the novel is inspired by Sherman Alexie’s own experiences growing up. The book has won numerous awards including the National Book Award. It’s most deserving of the praise.

This is a laugh-out-loud, tear-in-your-eye, 100% uplifting novel about the challenges of growing up and making your own way in the world. Everyone should read it.

Crazy Beautiful – Lauren Baratz-Logsted

crazyMy arm rises toward my face and the pincer touch of cold steel rubs against my jaw.

I chose hooks because they were cheaper.

I chose hooks because I wouldn’t outgrow them so quickly.

I chose hooks so that everyone would know I was different, so I would scare even myself.

That’s Lucius Wolfe. He’s 15 and the new kid at school. He and his younger sister, Misty, and his parents had to move because Lucius got in the middle of a bomb making experiment gone wrong and blew himself – and most of his house – up. Now he’s got hooks for hands. Why was Lucius making a bomb, one might ask? Ask away – you’re not going to get any real insight from Lucius other than a vague “I was practicing to do harm, somewhere, sometime, maybe.”

I hear the dog alarm go off in the same instant I become aware of the first morning light in my room. I like rising early, like sleeping with the blinds open, because I’m scared of the dark.

In the dark, almost anything can happen.

That’s Aurora Belle. She’s 15 and also the new kid at the school. She and her father moved because Aurora’s mom had recently died of cancer and her dad thought it was time to change the scenery. Aurora is beautiful and smart and perfect…and immediately popular at school.

On the bus on the first morning  (and what are the chances, eh?) Aurora and Lucius’s eyes meet and wowza. But it’s even more than that for Lucius; he decides to become Aurora’s Gallowglass. It means ‘foreign soldier’ but to Lucius it is “the greatest personal protection service you can think of all rolled into one person.”

Aurora doesn’t really strike me as the person who actually needs protecting. She’s absorbed almost immediately into the school’s who’s who and soon thereafter wins the lead in Grease (which, unbelievably, Lucius has never even heard of).

Still, there is Jessup Tristan (and by now the names are starting to be as irritating as the characters), school douche-bag, and a couple of superficial girls and Nick Greek, the security guard who frisks Lucius after he sets off the alarm going through the school’s metal detector. It’s an embarrassing moment for Nick, but then it’s all made well when the 15 year old boy and the 22 year old security guard become fast friends and Lucius actually helps Nick reconsider his career path. I kid you not.

If Lucius didn’t have hooks for hands and a slightly suspect psyche, Crazy Beautiful would be nothing more than an adequately written YA novel.  Take away those hooks and Lucius’s raison d’etre and you’ve got…nothing. Seriously. At a mere 193 pages there’s no time to really develop the characters or their relationships.

Boy sees girl on the bus and falls instantly in love.

Girl sees boy on the bus and “there was an instant connection.”

We’re on page 28.

And what are the chances, when the plot twist comes – separating these two ‘damaged kids’ – that Aurora knows exactly what Gallowglass is?

As it turns out, pretty damn good.

Give this one a miss.



I Am Scout – Charles J. Shields

It’s pretty much a rite of passage that every teenager reads To Kill a Mockingbird at some point during their high school career. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s only book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.  I love the book , but even I can see how today’s teens might struggle with it.

tkamIn case you’ve been living under a rock, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town lawyer. Narrated by Scout, the story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Although the action of the story takes place when Scout and her brother are children, the story is narrated from an adult’s vantage point which is how Scout is able to make some very worldly observations about society, childhood, prejudice and evil – all of which are themes in the book.

It’s an English teacher’s dream book, but it’s not without its problems – especially when you teach a generation of students who mostly read about sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Still, I think it’s worthwhile.

I started reading I Am Scout, Charles J. Shield’s student-friendly autobiography of Harper Lee  ( adapted by Shields from his book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) just before my students and I began our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even though I have probably read To Kill a Mockingbird a half dozen times or more, I’d never read anything about Lee’s life and I was interested.

If you ever wondered why Lee never published another book (and, really, who hasn’t wondered that?) this is the book for you. Shields traces Lee’s childhood, the youngest of four children growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Almost from the beginning, it’s impossible not to see Scout when you read that Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards) Harper Lee:

had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.” Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Eithin minutes, each had landed face down, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”

Almost everything about Scout’s make-believe life is drawn from Lee’s childhood. Lee did call her father by his first name and he was a lawyer. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Lee’s mother was virtually absent from her life owing to issues with mental health. Several other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by people in Lee’s life including Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict and Boo Radley, who is based on Alfred Boleware Jr., a Monroeville native who was rumoured to be  “a captive in his own home, tied to a bed frame by his father.”

Shields also tells how Lee helped Truman Capote research (and some say write) In Cold Blood, easily considered one of the quintessential pieces of true-crime writing of the last century. The relationship between Lee and Capote lasted thoughout their lives, but was not without its trials; Capote was, perhaps, jealous of Lee’s success –  even though he was certainly no slouch.

I am scoutSo, why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another novel?  According to Shields:

She reportedly had every intention of writing many novels, but never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. She became overwhelmed. Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed, she said, and she retreated from the spotlight. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable with too much attention. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved.

I felt after reading Shields’ biography that the reason Lee never wrote another novel was because this was the only story she had to tell. But that’s okay – if you only have one, it may as well be the one that wins the Pulitzer.

A Peculiar Grace – Jeffrey Lent

peculiargraceIt took me forever to finish Jeffrey Lent’s highly praised novel A Peculiar Grace. Forever. Just under 400 pages, it felt twice as long because Lent’s prose is just shy of purple and nothing happens. Nothing. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens.

40-something Hewitt Pearce is leading a solitary life in the Vermont house he inherited from his father. Hewitt’s a blacksmith, a prickly artistic type who “had to sit there a while to see if  it was a day for iron or not. This was the essence of what his customers perceived as a great problem – the fact he refused to state a deadline however vague.”  A sign near his forge’s door states: “If you want it done your way learn how to do it & make it yourself. Your commission is not my vision.”

Well, okay then.

Into Hewitt’s insular life comes 20-something Jessica. Her VW breaks down on Hewitt’s property and he offers her something to eat and a place to clean up. So she pretty much moves in. Jessica isn’t 100% emotionally secure, and Hewitt is 100% emotionally closed off so anything that’s going to happen between them is going to be a long time coming. (No pun intended.)

There are complications. Hewitt’s still hung up on Emily, a girl he met and loved many years ago. She’d married someone else and Hewitt has worshipped and brooded from afar ever since. There are also some family skeletons including  a famous painter father, and  an older sister Hewitt’s on the outs with.  Then Emily’s husband dies and Hewitt decides it’s time to make his feelings known to her once more, but really – can these two crazy middle-aged kids overcome their past and make it? And what about Jessica?

I kept reading. I don’t know why. When Hewitt’s mother, sister and niece arrived for a visit and these family members started talking to each other it was bizarre. People don’t actually talk to each other like this, do they?

“Jesus mother. Don’t you flush?”

“I certainly do. …And haven’t you heard about conserving water? Speaking of which you need to change the gaskets in the faucets of the tub and sink upstairs. At Broad Oakes they sent around a pamphlet about the unnecessary use of water. And not just because of the drought but because there’s long-term stress on the aquifers all over the U.S. and people still want green lawns in August”

“I don’t think so, girlie. Whatever nonsense you’re up to here I want to be able to watch your face when it comes out.”

By the time Hewitt and Jessica (and Emily and Hewitt’s sister)  finally work out their messy and strangely overwrought lives,  I had reader’s fatigue. Partly it had to so with the stylistic nature of Lent’s prose – weirdly fragmented and dense – and partly it had to do with not really caring very much about any of these people.

The Lost Boy – Greg Ruth

lostboyGreg Ruth has a successful career as a writer and comic book artist and has worked for Dark Horse Comics, DC/Vertigo and even illustrated Barack Obama’s picture book Our Enduring Spirit.

I saw The Lost Boy sitting on a shelf at Indigo and thought it looked and sounded interesting and as I am always on the hunt for graphic novels to add to my small but growing collection, I added it to my shopping bag.

The Lost Boy is the story of Nate who moves to a new town and a new house with his parents. His father tells him that he gets to choose any room he wants and upon a desultory inspection of the rooms upstairs Nate finds an old tape recorder under a loose floor board. Even more strange, there’s a note with his name on it which simply says: Find him.

The tape recorder belongs to Walter Pidgin and when Nate presses play he hears the voice of Walter, a boy about the same age as Nate.

“These are the facts,” Walter’s voice says. “Six dogs and three cats have gone missing in the past ten weeks. The pattern is too deliberate to be coyotes.”

Walter tells his tape recorder that something ‘unnatural’ is at work in Crow’s Woods and it turns out he’s right.

lostboy2 When Nate meets Tabitha, a girl down the street, she’s able to tell him that Walter went missing many years before and when the ‘otherworld’ starts encroaching on the real worl, Nate and Tabitha decide that they need to go into the woods to find out just what happened to Walter.

I found myself getting confused by the players – and maybe that’s because there’s this complicated world which is unveiled by talking dolls and bugs. Cool, but a perhaps too convoluted for one reading. I liked the art in The Lost Boy better than I liked the story, actually – although the story had a lot of potential.

Nevertheless, a worthy and intriguing additiong to my classroom library.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

cuckooDespite the fact that my children, my daughter in particular, are over-the-top Harry Potter fans, I have only ever read the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When my daughter was really little, say four or five, I had tried to read the book to her and I just couldn’t do it.  I did end up reading it out loud to a grade nine class a couple of years ago and they loved it; so did I.

That said, I wasn’t really looking forward to tackling J.K. Rowling’s massive post Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, when it was one of last year’s book club selections. That book ended up being a really pleasant surprise, however,  and proved once and for all (as if being one of  the best-selling authors of all time wasn’t proof enough) that Ms. Rowling can write the hell out of a story.

My book club recently met to discuss Rowling’s mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, which Rowling wrote using the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. (There’s an interesting article about her decision to do so here. ) By the time we got to the book, though, the gig was up and we already knew Rowling had penned the book.

Cormoran Strike, the novel’s protagonist, is a former soldier who lost a leg below the knee to a land mine in Afghanistan. Now he lives in London where he works – although not very successfully – as a private investigator.  His relationship with Charlotte has just ended badly – again. He’s broke and living in his office. And then John Bristow arrives with a case for him.

Bristow is the brother of Strike’s childhood friend, Charlie, who had died when they were kids. He’s also the brother of Lula Landry, the most famous model on the planet. Landry recently committed suicide, but John believes something more sinister happened and wants Strike to investigate.

Of course, it’s really impossible to say much more about the story without giving away important plot points. Suffice it to say that as far as the ‘detective’ part of the novel goes – there’s lots to keep mystery-lovers in the game.

Rowling’s real strength as a writer is characterization. And as I tell the students in my writing class – character is the most important thing anyway; they are what drives your plot.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is chock-a-block with characters of all sorts, the most important of which is Cormoran Strike himself.

The reflection staring back at him was not handsome. Strike had the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing, an impression only heightened by the swelling and blackening eye. His thick curly hair, springy as carpet, had ensured that his many youthful nicknames had included “Pubehead.” He looked older than his thirty-five years.

Although the women at book club couldn’t agree on whether we found Strike attractive or not (trying to cast him in a movie version was hysterical), we all agreed that he was super-smart and that’s always the sexiest thing anyway.

Strike and his office temp, Robin (who is pretty smart herself) work their way through the list of Lula Landry associates, turning over rocks in an effort to understand the model and the world she inhabited. It makes for a pretty compelling tale.

The best endorsement I can offer for The Cuckoo’s Calling is this: I bet we’ll be seeing Cormoran again and since he’s a character I can’t seem to stop thinking about, I welcome the opportunity to join him on his next case.

The Missing Girl – Norma Fox Mazer

missing girlIt’s a total fluke that I am writing my review of Norma Fox Mazer’s last novel, The Missing Girl, on the anniversary of her death. She died on October 17, 2009 and although she was a very well-known and highly regarded young adult novelist, The Missing Girl was my introduction to her writing. In a career that spanned over 40 years, Mazer wrote over 30 books including Newbery Honor Book, After the Rain and National Book Award Finalist A Figure of Speech.

The Missing Girl is the story of the five Hebert sisters: Beauty, Mim, Faithful, Fancy and Autumn. They live with their out of work father, Poppy, and slightly air-headed mother, Blossom, in Mallory, New York.  Beauty, the eldest at 17, dreams of graduating high school and fleeing Mallory.

When she left Mallory, it would be for Chicago, which she had first heard about from Mr. Giametti, her seventh-grade language arts teacher who gre up there. She was going to a place where no one knew her, a place where she could become whoever it was she was meant to be…

The Hebert family dynamics would actually be quite enough to make The Missing Girl a compelling read, but Mazer had something else in mind.

If the man is lucky, in the morning on his way to work, he sees the girls. A flock of them, like birds.

Slight of build, stoop shouldered, wearing a gray coat, a gray scarf around his neck against the cold, his wire-rimmed glasses set firmly on his nose, minding his own business, he could be any man, any respectable, ordinary man.

But there is nothing ordinary about this man. He is watching the sisters carefully, biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment. The reader knows it’s coming. The girls are unaware. They have their own issues and petty grievances with each other. Their lives are chaotic and slightly ramshackle.

What struck me about The Missing Girl was the quality of the prose and the very authentic voices of the characters. Employing first, second and third person points of view, Mazer manages to create compelling lives for all the girls and without anything gratuitous makes their “admirer” a creepy predator.

Mazer said she came to write The Missing Girl via a series of short stories about the Hebert sisters which she wrote for various anthologies. It wasn’t until she lost her daughter to cancer in 2001, though, that she settled in to write this novel. “Her death was unbearable,” Mazer said,” “but of course I bear it. I must. Yet below the surface of my life, her loss remains unbearable and will always remain so.

“I still do not understand this fully, but it seems to me that after her death I was compelled to write about something hard, difficult – you might call it unbearable – and to name that ‘something’ with the three words that name my grief, my loss, my sorrow: the missing girl.”