ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

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The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt

This is the final part of an extra long post on my personal website (The Scruffy Rube) that deals with how we are adapting and reusing classical stories in modern literature.

Few things have struck me as thoroughly this year as this line from the book The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt:  There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer long vanished from the face of the earth, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others (p. 247).

Greenblatt is right of course, and in telling the story of Roman poet Titus Lucretius’ classic De rerum natura (On the Nature Things) he spins the tale of a long dead writer who seemed to have that effect on an entire generation of minds. From Montaigne to Shakespeare and all manner of other Renaissance intellects, this Latin poem captures a new way to see the world: where seeking pleasure is a virtue, the Gods are irrelevant, and mankind charts their own course through the world. Naturally, this challenge to the established order of the middle ages (and the church that dominated it) led to conflict–even though it was an agent of the church who brought the book back into prominence.

Throughout his writing, Greenblatt guides readers into this conflict by encapsulating a horde of complex ideas, philosophies and historical factoids. My father and father-in-law were both captivated by the men who found the book and re-introduced it to the world. Unfortunately, since I had taken a two-year long college course chronicling the connections between Lucretius’ philosophy, the Catholic church’s obstinacy, Shakespeare’s poetry and all the other writers from generations long gone, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I had already read the book’s spoilers. While the book might be more engrossing for those who are new to the lineage of great literature, there’s still something appealing for  everyone.

The context that helped Lucretius’ ideas to thrive are here again now: a corrupt church bureaucracy, accusations that self-seeking pleasure has loosened morals around the world, an increasingly secular society. But the real power of ideas isn’t what they are, the real power is that the ideas can matter to anyone and everyone. Reading the ideas of Lucretius, or Greenblatt, or any religious prophet can benefit you and your society. Encountering ideas on your own offers the opportunity to improve your life and the lives of others. It’s all a matter of how you use those ideas.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #13: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

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I worked at our school’s Scholastic Book Fair recently and bought several youth lit titles that sounded interesting and/or won awards. One Crazy Summer fits the bill on both counts. It was a National Book Award finalist, a Newberry Honor Book, and winner of both the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King Award, among many others. Set in 1968 California and narrated by an 11-year-old African American girl named Delphine, it tells the story of Delphine and her two younger sisters’ summer with their mother Cecile. Cecile walked out on the family in Brooklyn 5-6 years earlier, and against her will, her daughters have come for a visit for the first time since then.

Oakland, California, in 1968 was a turbulent place. As the author says in her acknowledgments, “I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change. Yes. There were children.” In reading about the year 1968 in the US, it’s easy to forget that the tumult of that year — assassinations and race riots — had an impact on children. They saw it and lived in its midst. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern become acquainted with the Black Panthers firsthand in Oakland. Cecile wants nothing to do with her daughters and sends them out of the house for the day each morning, requesting that they stay away as long as possible (and stay out of her kitchen) so as not to disturb her work. Cecile is a poet who goes by the name Nzila and has her own printing press (a matter of some interest to the Panthers). Cecile directs them to the community center run by the Panthers  where the girls get breakfast and attend the day program.

Initially, the girls are uninterested in the camp because their expectations upon arrival in California were so different. They envisioned Disneyland, sightseeing and generally being mothered by their mother. Instead they got classes on current events with neighborhood kids, taught by Black Panthers. The teachers and the service they provide don’t initially align with Delphine’s image of Panthers from TV. At the center, she sees people who are helping in their community, although one — Kelvin — strikes a nerve when he makes fun of Fern for having a white doll. The white doll becomes an issue later in the story and is a factor in the final (and very satisfying) resolution of the novel.

While Delphine as narrator and oldest sister is the dominant character, each sister comes into her own by the end of the story. Cecile is a source of both fascination and terror for the girls and we finally learn her story at the end, too. I really enjoyed the characters — Cecile, the sisters, the other kids at the center, the Black Panthers — because they’re colorfully drawn, from the perspective of an 11-year-old. There’s the humor, love and bluntness we’d expect in someone that age. It makes it fun to read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and applaud the other for taking on a time period and topics that might seem inappropriate for young readers. The fact is, kids often know more about the gritty reality of their world than we imagine because they do live in it. They are there, and while their perceptions might not be fully informed, they are important because their experience influences who they become.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #3: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

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Last year for CBR4, I reviewed Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize nominated novel The Plague of Doves and gave it 4 stars (which seems stingy in retrospect — it deserved 5). Her latest National Book Award-winning novel The Round House is another brilliant work. As far as I’m concerned, Erdrich is the best American writer around.

The events of The Round House occur in the summer of 1988. Our narrator is a 14-year-old Native named Joe, son of Judge Coutts and Geraldine (characters from The Plague of Doves). They live on a reservation in North Dakota, where dad is a tribal judge, mom is a recorder of genealogies and Joe hangs out with his buddies doing fairly typical things like riding bikes, hanging out at the lake, drinking and smoking. Their lives are shattered when Geraldine is violently raped. Geraldine retreats into herself, refusing to divulge details about the crime to tribal, state or federal officials (the question of exactly where the crime occurred will be important to determining who has jurisdiction). The Judge re-examines cases he tried in order to see if he can figure out who might want to hurt him and his family. Joe and his friends engage in some investigating of their own, and Joe makes startling discoveries about the crime and members of his community. Ultimately, he must decide how he will act on what he has learned, and the choice is excruciating for him.

The plot is grim but, sadly, based on a staggering reality — that one third of Native women are raped, 86% by non-Native men, and that justice is rarely served. Erdrich, who is part Chippewa, provides statistics and facts at the end of the novel. The lack of justice will surely make readers burn, but injustice is part of Native American history. Erdrich does a beautiful job of weaving Native history into her stories without making it seem forced or pedantic. The facts flow naturally into conversations that characters have, and the reader can see the influence of 200 years’ worth of US government decisions on the lives of Natives today.

As a writer, Erdrich is simply amazing. Her imagination and ability to put herself in the place of different ages, sexes and cultures is superb. She can write the dream sequence of Mooshum, explaining the tale of the wiindigoo, a spirit that possesses a person at a time of desperation. Then she can produce a detailed conversation between fourteen year olds about Star Trek Next Generation. She can break your heart with Joe’s decisions and his friends’ fates, and she can make you laugh out loud when the priest hears a confession that causes him to chase a teen out of the church and around the neighborhood. One especially delightful character is Grandma Ingnatia, aka Grandma Thunder, who scandalizes the younger people with her frank talk about sex. When Joe and his friends go to her place for lunch, they get an earful.

You boys listen up, said Grandma Ingatia. You want to learn something? Want to learn how to keep your little peckers hard all your life? Go and go? Live clean like Napoleon. Liquor makes you quicker and that’s no good. Bread and lard keep it hard! He is eighty-seven and he not only gets it up easy, he can go five hours at a stretch.

We wanted to sneak away but were pulled back by that last piece of information.

By far the most powerful writing deals with Geraldine’s trauma. The revelation of the crime committed against her is shocking and brutal. Equally devastating is the way Erdrich describes the aftermath — Geraldine’s anguish and depression and its effect on her family. In one scene, Geraldine is taken by surprise when she doesn’t hear her husband enter the house. He hugs her from behind, causing her to scream and drop the casserole dish she had been holding. Joe narrates what followed:

…my mother flushed darkly and an almost imperceptible shudder coursed over her. She took a gasping breath, and put her hand to her wounded face. Then she stepped over the mess on the floor and walked carefully away…. As she walked up each riser she looked straight ahead and her hand was firm on the banister. Her steps were soundless. She seemed to float. My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.

Erdrich creates a rich, complicated, fascinating community peopled with very human characters. They are flawed (some drink too much, some can be abusive, some are less than honest) but despite their mistakes and flaws, still do selfless beautiful things for one another. They are real.  And the resolution to the plot is also very real, a mix of relief and sorrow.

You could read The Round House without reading The Plague of Doves first, but you would be giving yourself a treat to read them back to back. Erdrich is a national treasure and I intend to read all of her books and hope that she doesn’t stop writing for a long time.