Review: The House of Journalists by Tim Finch

TheHouseOfJournalists

The House of Journalists by Tim Finch. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 368 pp.

The House of Journalists (the place, not the novel) is a London haven for exiled writers. Led by Chairperson and celebrated author Julian Snowman, the House provides a place of rest, safety, and structure where its refugees are encouraged to write about their past struggles while waiting for their hearings in front of the asylum tribunal.

The House of Journalists (the novel, not the place) is a frustrating fluctuation between “Wow, can this guy write” and “Is this ever going to GO anywhere?”

Here’s the problem: you have to get through almost three-fourths of the book before it starts to pick up. The early chapters are expository, full of characters’ backgrounds and all the shifts in political regimes in their homelands. If this had been a library book, I would have returned it without finishing it. Guaranteed. At first I felt bad about that, and I wondered if maybe it was because the book is so about politics, and I’m not really a political person. But I didn’t dislike this book because it’s not my usual subject matter; Blood Meridian isn’t my usual subject matter, either, but Cormac McCarthy’s style and storytelling kept me engaged. I disliked this book because the asides seemed unnecessarily lengthy and caused the plot to move along too haltingly. (I also disliked this book because the plot was so hard to find, and not in a good, experimental sort of way.)

All that being said, the book does have its strengths. The first-person-plural narrative of the fellows is detached and eerie, sort of like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides or Aimee Bender’s “Appleless” (though not as compelling as those examples, it’s in the same vein). The Ted Crumb chapters are undoubtedly the best in the book; I’d love to see a Crumb novel one day. He has a sort of Bukowski feel to him that I just love. And Julian’s parts are fascinating in that train-wreck way because he is far, far off the deep end and it’s intriguing to watch his mind sort of crumple in on itself.

The most interesting aspect of this book by far is the questions that it raises. Who “owns” a story? Is it the person who had the experience or the listener? What is the purpose of storytelling? Is it financial gain? Personal growth? Entertainment? Art? But these are questions you can think about without struggling through this book, and that’s what I would recommend.

All in all: If you don’t mind slogging through all the political and historical asides, this novel can at times be an excellent study in voice. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Spotlight on Channing O’Banning and Interview with Author Angela Spady

Today I’m featuring a new series of middle grade novels by Angela Spady. The Channing O’Banning books are engaging and educational, and the protagonist’s name is great fun to say aloud! Before I talk more about how much I enjoyed reading these, I’m pleased to present an interview with author Angela Spady.


Angela,

Hello, and thank you in advance for your time. I greatly enjoyed the Channing O’Banning books, and it’s a pleasure to be featuring them on my blog.

Having worked with children in an educational capacity, what was the biggest challenge when transitioning to your role as a parent? 

As a parent, it’s sometimes tough to know when to nurture and when to be in “educator mode.”  I’ve worked with the gifted and talented for many years, so I can have the tendency to maybe push a little too much! Thankfully, I have children who enjoy art and are free to express themselves creatively. So I guess you can say it’s a good balance. When I see they’re getting a bit stressed, I can often see that even in their artwork. Communication is key, in any way possible—especially in those tween years!

What sorts of activities did you promote at home to keep your child interested and engaged in the arts?

I try to keep at least three choices of art media (paints, pastels, pencils, ink, clay etc.) available in our “studio area,” which is a large room full of art bins, and lots of light. We’ve always played a game called “I Draw, You Draw,” where basically we take turns creating part of a drawing and will then go back and forth adding our own touch until completion. Not only does it encourage creativity, but it encourages open mindedness and teamwork. My youngest daughter, who actually inspired the series, has attended art camps since the age of 5 and she’s now 17. She’s an incredible artist.

What would you recommend to parents who fear they’ve waited too long to introduce their children to the arts?

It’s NEVER too late to buy a child a sketchbook and allow them to create and express themselves! I still do myself!  Studies show that kids who engage in some type of art activity, are more prone to excel in ALL subject areas because they learn to think differently and see from all angles.. I see that in the classroom all the time. Kids have to be encouraged to think independently and that requires encouragement from the parent AND the teachers. You don’t have to post all of child’s art on the refrigerator, but definitely display something. My kids’ favorite pieces are actually framed for everyone to enjoy. Just because a child may not be the next Picasso, doesn’t mean the child or parents should abandon art activities entirely. From visual arts to performing arts—they’re great outlets for children, both creatively and psychologically.  Trying is the most important part!

The O’Banning family travels to exotic locations that are both educational and lots of fun! What are some of your favorite places to visit and experience other cultures?

Our family loves to travel! I honestly believe it’s the best way to educate a child and show them how parts of the world are different, and yet so interconnected.  Costa Rica is one of my favorite places, due to the birdlife and fauna. We’re all birdwatchers! Channing O’Banning and the Rainforest Rescue is actually inspired by real events. My favorite place on earth is Taos, New Mexico, where I live part time.  Not only is the landscape magical, but it’s rich in Native American history, and is also an amazing art town. Taos and Santa Fe are featured in Channing O’Banning and the Turquoise Trail. Lastly, my daughters’ favorite place is Kyoto, Japan. She even got to talk to a beautiful geisha and have tea with her. She’s now studying Japanese as a result of that trip!

One of my favorite things about these books is that you never trivialize Channing’s problems. In fourth grade, everything is a huge deal, from a slight on the playground to a friend’s distracting crush. Care to share an anecdote from your own childhood that seemed like the end of the world at the time?

That’s a good one! I remember my first crush like it was yesterday. Isn’t that amazing? I’m sure most parents remember theirs as well. The fact that we still remember it should tell us how it affected us emotionally. I’ll never forget that I got into trouble for sending a boy a note during class. Because he accepted the note, we both had to stay in at recess. I was in fourth grade and totally embarrassed, fearing my teacher would read the note out loud. Thankfully she was merciful! I’ve always tried to respect my kids privacy to a point, and to put myself in their shoes.  Having our children know that we trust them is a HUGE thing.

What are some of your favorite children’s stories?

Hands down, my favorite book that’s also my children’s favorite, is Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. I think we have three copies, as I bought one for each of my daughters to give to their own kids someday. I have no doubt that it inspired them artistically at a young age.  The Mitten by Alvin Tresselt and Yaroslava was written in 1964 and still one the most beautiful children’s stories I’ve ever read.

If you could say one thing to today’s teachers, what would it be?

That’s an easy one: LET EACH CHILD BE UNIQUE!  Just because you don’t understand a child’s artwork doesn’t mean that it’s not art. And giving them a coloring sheet isn’t art either. Let them THINK.  The best way I know to explain this is through an experience my daughter had in third grade. Unfortunately they only had art once a week, much to my daughter’s disappointment.  One day, the teacher sat a stuffed animal that was a cat, on her desk and told everyone to draw it the same way. My daughter was crushed that she couldn’t draw it the way she wanted. She came home extremely upset and drew about 10 cats on 10 sheets of paper, making each one different from the other. I loved it but also had a loooong talk with that teacher. Needless to say, there were no more stuffed cats that year, but an amazing menagerie of unique and beautiful creatures…


AngelaSpady

Inspired by her own daughter who is an accomplished teen artist, the series is sought after by teachers and parents, and anticipated by curious young artists who have been searching for a character like Channing O’Banning. Spady has two graduate degrees in Educational Leadership, certified in Gifted Education and is the founder of the Art and Cultural Enrichment program (ACE) at the June Buchanan School.

Currently an Arts and Humanities instructor at the June Buchanan School, as well as Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors at the Artisan Center of Kentucky, Spady has been featured on/in KY Teacher Magazine, WYMT-TV, and PBS. She enjoys traveling around the world with her family and currently splits her time between Southern Kentucky and Taos, NM.


RevisedRainforestRescueIllustration

I’d like to move on and talk about these wonderful books, but first you should know a bit about me and my household. I taught dance for fourteen years; in fact, my husband and I met when we were instructors at a ballroom dance studio. Before deciding to be a stay at home mom, I taught high school English, and my husband now teaches at a school for the performing arts. So, in addition to having educational backgrounds, we’re huge proponents of the arts — and especially of incorporating the arts into education. Angela Spady has written a series that includes everyone: students, parents, and teachers alike. Her books show that it takes cooperation between all parties to best encourage learning and artistic expression.

Turq. Trail cov finish copy

Okay, now onto Channing: Channing O’Banning is a classic heroine: feisty, passionate, and full of joie de vivre. She’s not perfect, of course: she bickers with her older sister, often displays a lack of interest in academics, and struggles to maintain positive relationships with her friends. But through it all, she learns and grows. This is the kind of character you want your kids to read: one that they can relate to, but also one that they can learn lessons alongside.

In each book, Channing’s family takes a trip to a location that’s related to a unit she is learning about in school. They see the sights, talk to natives, and try new foods, and everyone’s horizons are broadened as a result. This kind of travel teaches our children that the world is a much bigger place than their own backyards, and it also teaches acceptance and appreciation of other cultures. I hope to have the opportunity to expose my son to other places, other ways of life. Travel has widened my life in ways I’d never expected, and I want him to have that same gift.

I also loved the idea of hands-on education that is promoted in this series; although I’ve always been a bookish sort of girl, not everyone learns best by reading and taking notes. My husband is a very kinesthetic learner; he needs to “do” in order for something to really sink in. And how better to keep students interested than by making the lessons come alive? Channing’s teachers bring in visuals and assign various projects to students with different interests and abilities (for example, with Channing’s penchant for art, she is asked to create a poster about a Native American tribe). This is something that educators can learn from: when students are more invested in the learning process, they are more likely to remember the things that they learn.

And these books are fun, and silly, as well. I would have loved them as a young girl because they are realistic, funny, and educational all at once. This is a great new series for kids, and I would encourage parents to read them, too. Reading a book and discussing it with your child shows that you’re taking an active interest in their interests, but in the case of these books, it also allows you to supplement your child’s learning. For example, after reading Channing O’Banning and the Rainforest Rescue, why not find a recipe for Costa Rican cuisine or pick up a tropical fruit from the supermarket? After Channing O’Banning and the Turquoise Trail, perhaps arrange a visit to a museum that features Native American art and artifacts and then encourage your children to create their own artwork based on what they’ve seen? There are so many ways for a family to learn and grow together, and Angela Spady’s support for this is evident in her work.

All in all, these books are a great pick for everyone involved in the education process: students, teachers, and parents. It’s wonderful to find something that works on so many levels. Thanks to Angela for her time and thoughtful words, and thanks to Marissa from Smith Publicity for facilitating this exchange.


Follow Angela Spady on Twitter: @angelaspady

Check out the Channing O’Banning website, full of activities for kids and adults alike! This site features cross-curricular activities to use in the classroom, but they can also be used by ambitious parents looking for educational activities to engage in with their kids. It also includes information about each volume in the series and some adorable coloring pages.

New Salinger Publications! (?)

You’ve probably heard that there’s a documentary coming out about J.D. Salinger, the notoriously reclusive author (and one of my personal favorites). Here’s the trailer, in case you’re interested:

Anyway. According to The New York Times, The Guardian, and a slew of other publications, this Salinger documentary is revealing some news. Big news. Huge news. Something that I’m so excited about I can barely contain myself.

This morning’s New York Times article states,

…a forthcoming documentary and related book, both titled “Salinger,” include detailed assertions that Mr. Salinger instructed his estate to publish at least five additional books — some of them entirely new, some extending past work — in a sequence that he intended to begin as early as 2015.

Now, Salinger’s family would not comment on this news, so there’s no way of saying for sure that it’s true, but I remain ridiculously hopeful that it is. (I feel like I did when I was five and insisted on believing, against all evidence, that unicorns were real. The unicorn was my favorite animal, so it had to be real, didn’t it?)

My husband, knowing how I can get about these things, said, “Do you want to throw a Salinger release party?” And I said, “Well…we’d all have to sit alone in different rooms, wouldn’t we?”

So that’s a no to the hermit-themed party, but a huge, resounding YES! to the news. (I’m especially thrilled at the idea of more tales about the Glass family.)

Coverflips, Gender Assumptions, and Jojo Moyes

TheGirlYouLeftBehind

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes. Pamela Dorman Books. 384 pp.

Let’s talk about stereotypes. Which will be easier to read, sappier, fluffier: a book written by a woman or a book written by a man? Please note that I’m not talking about my own opinion but about the assumption that many others hold. It’s kind of a mess that so many women still — in the twenty-first century! — feel the need to publish pseudonymously, or using just their first initials, to increase their marketability.

Then there’s the issue of cover art. This spring, author Maureen Johnson posted a challenge on Twitter: choose a novel, flip the author’s gender, and create a new cover. The results were sadly unsurprising: the books with male authors always looked more interesting. Why is this still the way of things? As much as I hate stereotypical assumptions, they’re still part of the world. (Side note: I have a friend who refuses to read Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, some of the funniest, most wryly clever writing I’ve ever read, because the covers are too girly and he’s afraid to read them in public. [Maybe I should e-gift them for his birthday.])

What’s to be done about all of this? I don’t know. I admit, ashamedly, that I find myself steering away from super-girly-looking covers because I assume that the story will be too…well…girly for me. But that’s unfair. I’ve read some terrible books written by women, and I’ve read some terrible books written by men. A terrible book is a terrible book, regardless of who wrote it. And there’s no guarantee that a tougher-looking cover will contain more meaty material.

Furthermore, as Jojo Moyes taught me this summer, a girly-looking cover can contain some pretty mind-blowing ideas if you just give it a chance. From the questions of life, death, and assisted suicide in Me Before You to the ideas of provenance and war crimes in The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes’s works are changing the way I look at the world. I can’t seem to stop talking about her books, and I’m grateful to her for reminding me of just how good a book with a pretty cover can be.

A bit more about The Girl You Left Behind: it alternates between World War I and the present day and follows the journey of a mesmerizing work of art, a portrait that means the world to a pair of women living almost a century apart. Sophie and Liv have both lost much and seek to protect the painting with all that they have. It’s a story of love, loss, compromise, survival, and the healing power of art. At turns moving, funny, and heart-stopping, it made me intensely grateful for my life and safety while spurring me to think about the issues mentioned earlier. There are a couple of moments in Liv’s story that felt a bit forced, but overall the writing is efficient and evocative, a joy to read.

All in all: Big thanks to Jojo Moyes for showing me that a love story can be so deep and far-reaching (and, also, that a book that seems like a love story doesn’t have to be just that). And for you, readers, check this one out.

Review: The Look by Sophia Bennett

TheLook

The Look by Sophia Bennett. Scholastic. 336 pp.

Who doesn’t love an ugly duckling story? I mean, really. But this is an ugly duckling story with a twist, which makes it even better. Fifteen-year-old Ted is gangly and awkward, frequently teased at school. (In fact, one of her teachers thinks she’s a boy…) Her older sister Ava is the beautiful one, fending off advances from boys left and right. The girls get along in the way that sisters do, fighting occasionally but still loving one another. But their relationship is redefined almost overnight: Ted gets scouted by a hugely successful modeling agency, and Ava is diagnosed with cancer. Now the girls and their parents must adjust to their new way(s) of living and figure out where, exactly, their priorities lie.

Ted is a protagonist I wanted to root for, because when someone’s had a hard time of things through no fault of their own, I instinctively want things to get better for them. And Ava…well, I was always the awkward one, so as much as I couldn’t relate to her path quite as much as Ted’s, it broke my heart to watch her struggle and suffer as much as she did. Sophia Bennett portrays both girls’ trials quite smartly and shows them each at their strongest — and weakest — throughout the course of the novel.

The Look is a good examination of family, friends, and staying true to yourself even when you may not fully recognize the girl in the mirror. It’s an easy read, too, which always helps. But this isn’t a book I’d re-read. It’s a young adult book that seems more directly geared toward its target audience; it doesn’t have as much cross-demographic appeal as other YA books I’ve read and loved.

All in all: Worth reading once if you like YA. I’d recommend it to 14- to 16-year-old girls much more readily than to someone my own age.

Review: In Love by Alfred Hayes

InLove

In Love by Alfred Hayes. NYRB Classics. 160 pp.

Normally, I don’t like books full of dysfunction and sorrow. Some, sure. But lots? It gets to feel too emotionally suffocating. But there’s something about Alfred Hayes’s language and storytelling abilities that make In Love not only bearable, but actually quite beautiful.

This edition’s description says that it is “Executed with the cool smoky brilliance of a classic Miles Davis track,” and that’s entirely accurate. One of my favorite beers, Dogfish Head’s Raison D’Etre, tastes like this book reads. The first time I tried it, I told my husband that it tasted like a jazz saxophone played on a Bourbon Street balcony at dusk. He smirked at me disbelievingly, took a sip, and said, “Wow…you’re absolutely right.” That’s sort of what it felt like to read this book.

In Love, which takes place in New York in the 1940s, is told by a man who is casually dating a young divorcee whose parents are raising her daughter so that she can make something of herself. However, neither her piano lessons nor her noncommittal relationship are amounting to much in the way of greatness. So when an immensely wealthy, cultured gentleman asks her to dance, she accepts. And while they are dancing, he makes a startling proposition: he would like her to spend the night with him in exchange for one thousand dollars.

Okay, let’s stop here for a minute. If you’re like me, you just said, “One thousand dollars? If he’s so rich, why is that all he offered her?!” But remember that this is the ’40s. According to this website, a thousand dollars in 1940 is equivalent to over $16,000 in 2012. So he’s offering her a decent sum of money.

Anyway. She declines, and it becomes an anecdote for her to tell (and retell…and retell…) to her current lover, our narrator. He is less than amused by this, but he is unwilling to admit to his jealousy since this would be a level of commitment that he is not prepared to make. Eventually, since the narrator is too evasive for her, or maybe just because she’s fascinated by this mystery man, the woman decides to start dating the wealthy gentleman.

You see where this is going, right? The narrator pretends that this extracurricular relationship doesn’t bother him, eventually realizes how much she means to him, can’t tell her for the longest time…then breaks down and begs her to pick him. But she doesn’t. And back and forth, together and not, just like so many dysfunctional relationships you’ve witnessed or been a part of.

I know I’m not making this sound all that interesting, and maybe it’s not, plot-wise, but the writing makes it oh-so-worth it. You’ll just have to trust me…or, just like my husband with that bottle of Dogfish Head, give this book a shot and see for yourself!

Review: Ostrich by Matt Greene

Ostrich

Ostrich by Matt Greene. Ballantine. 336 pp.

Why did I choose to read this book? It’s got a brightly-colored cover, it’s a bildungsroman, and the description mentions the idea of being “ostrichized.”

It’s sort of (but not really) about feeling ostrichized (which is a better word for excluded (because ostriches can’t fly so they often feel left out)).

This is one of many adorable, laugh-out-loud observations from the mind of Alex, a rather bright thirteen-year-old boy with quite a bit to figure out about his life: Will he get a scholarship to the secondary school of his choosing? Is one of his parents being unfaithful? Will the surgery go according to plan? When will he have his first wet dream? Why is his hamster acting so strange lately? And what, exactly, are Chloe Gower’s intentions?

These are just a few of the questions plaguing young Alex’s mind. Ostrich is part novel, part stream-of-consciousness experiment, and part touching family drama. Matt Greene nails the thought processes of an intelligent tween; it’s a privilege and a delight to be in Alex’s head. He doesn’t want to admit that there are things he doesn’t know about, so he keeps a “To-Google” list, the contents of which are as wide-ranging and hilarious as the rest of his thoughts (my personal favorite: “donkey oaty”).

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about this book. Sometimes Alex’s long-winded explanations of the things he was learning about at school got to be a bit much, but that’s what it can be like to talk to a middle schooler. Other than that? Not much to complain about.

All in all: An excellent debut with a fresh, funny, moving voice. Check it out!

Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House. 416 pp.

I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep about five years ago, and I really don’t remember much about it. What I do recall is how easy it was to read; I’m pretty sure I read it in a day. (And I was in grad school at the time, with tons of other reading to get through.) Sisterland was also a fast read for me; I found myself reaching for my Kindle almost constantly, trying to get in a few more pages and find out what was going to happen.

Sisterland is the story of Kate and Vi, twin sisters who have “senses,” or premonitions about the future. Vi has embraced her talent and made it into a lifestyle and living: she does readings, holds seances, etc. for money. Kate, on the other hand, is ashamed of her ability and refuses to discuss or tap into it. When Vi has a premonition about a major earthquake, Kate has to decide whether to support her sister — and possibly even help her figure out when it will hit — or to pretend, to others as well as to herself, that she doesn’t know what will happen.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book: within the big events, there were some great moments in the often-monotonous but still world-altering, wouldn’t-have-it-any-other-way life of a stay at home mom. As a SAHM myself, it was a nice change to read something so close to home. I know how much of a success it can be to get your kid to sleep without a major meltdown, and I know how it feels to look forward to your beer or ice cream reward at the end of the day. I also know what it’s like to have gut-clenching fears about your child’s well-being and how it feels to revel in your child’s minor triumphs (like sitting up unassisted). It was nice to see these things put onto paper (ya know, hypothetically, since I read the e-version) by a writer more gifted than myself.

On the other hand…I hated a good amount of the sisterly scenes. I wanted to scream, “Why can’t they stop bickering and just get along?!” And I couldn’t connect with Vi at all. She took advantage of the people she cared about without a second thought, and this wasn’t portrayed as a bad thing, merely “the way she was.” Yuck. My major complaint about this book, though, is the turn the plot took at the end. It felt so disconnected with the tone of the rest of the book that it threw me for a loop, and not in a good way.

All in all? A lot of other good books came out this year. This one wasn’t bad, but I’d say skip it. Read Aimee Bender’s latest instead; it comes out tomorrow!

Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

MeBeforeYou

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Penguin. 400 pp.

Is it misleading to say, “I rarely read love stories” and then to review three in a row? Sorry about that. Maybe I’m more of a romantic sucker than I let on. Or maybe I only like well-written love stories and I’ve been finding quite a few of those lately? Time will tell.

I don’t know what made me request Me Before You — oh, wait! Yes, I do. My friend Amanda added it to her to-read list on Goodreads, and I have large amounts of faith in her reading tastes. I’d seen it listed on NetGalley, scanned the description, and passed it by. Maybe I need to start paying more attention, because I almost missed out on this one.

Me Before You is about Lou Clark, a girl whose family is engaged in an endless struggle to make ends meet. When she loses her job at the local cafe, Lou is forced to try out job after job before finding one as a caretaker to a paraplegic man. Will Traynor, her charge, is rude and abrasive every chance he gets, but somehow the two grow closer, each seeing the other in ways that no one else can. Without giving anything away…hm…how can I express this? Will makes a monumental decision, one that may jeopardize everything that Lou has so precariously built with him.

It’s very difficult to write about this book without writing about the deeper events and issues. But I rather enjoyed reading it without knowing what was coming, and I’d like for you to be able to do the same. So here’s something safe to discuss: I found the chemistry between Will and Lou to be wonderful because of its gradual nature. There was a bit of a Jane-Eyre-and-Rochester vibe to it, for me at least. And even though in theory I can’t stand intelligent, witty older men who are prone to being condescending, one of my best friends is one. And I do enjoy reading and watching characters like that (Edward Rochester, Gregory House, et al). So maybe I hate the condescension, but the rest of the attributes force me to somewhat look the other way? Who knows?

Anyway. This story is believable and manages to somehow be a beautiful love story, a wonderful coming-of-age tale, and a social commentary all rolled into one. I had to hurry through one or two scenes to avoid crying, but the tears hit me in the final chapter. You’ll see what I mean when you get there.

All in all: Worth reading. So very worth reading.