Reading Round-up March – June 2013 (in no particular order)

The Weight of WaterThe Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is absolutely fabulous – I wish I hadn’t left it so long to review as I can now no longer do it justice.

It is a poetic novel and can be read in one sitting, in fact, I would recommend it ONLY be given your undivided attention. It has a slow-building quality to it that is triumphant in the end, making you wonder how Sarah Crossnan has achieved this with so few words. There is an implicit recognition of the power of silences, gaps and pauses for their own sake. Sometimes it isn’t what you say, but what you don’t say, that really packs a punch.

Each entry is served up as a complete poem, documenting an otherwise fairly typical story – that of an immigrant teenager making her way in a foreign country with very little knowledge of the language and culture and a fair chunk of emotional baggage to boot. Kasienka arrives in England with her mother in search of her father, who has walked out on the marriage without a trace. While her mother is consumed with her own pain, Kasienka battles a school bully, falls in love, misses her father, is watchful of her mother, finds her outlet in sport, and learns to make the best of her life with a quiet determination and resolve that’ll have you fist-pumping the air in the final pages.

A book not to be merely read, but re-read and savoured.

TaxiTaxi by خالد الخميسي

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everyone knows that the real way to get to know any country is to hail a cab, jump in, and let the driver rant and rave at will. This is the starting premise of Taxi, by Khaled Alkhamissi, whose narrator in the novel we never come to know. Instead, the central character relays the conversations, verbatim, that he has with any number of taxi drivers in Cairo over the course of perhaps a year. Published in 2006 prior to the Arab spring, it has been described by critics as “The novel that predicted the uprising”.

It lays out a myriad of views and experiences of common people living in Egypt, their daily realities, challenges and hopes in life. It is an overtly political novel, although the characters themselves are not inherently politicised. They’re just trying to get on in life; to work and provide for their families, to educate their children and provide them with a future that is secure. But they’re thwarted at every turn, and everybody has a different opinion about who is to blame and what should be done about it.

The novel is dedicated “to the life that dwells in the words of simple people”, and “simple” though those people may be, I found this book profoundly insightful and more enlightening than the nightly news.

Homecoming (Tillerman Cycle, #1)Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book packed as good a punch as it did when I first read it more than 20 years ago. Another reviewer elsewhere said that they idolised Dicey so much when they were growing up they actually thought they wanted to be her. I can totally relate to that. I still have a perfectly formed vision in my mind of my mother leaving me in a car parking lot with my three younger siblings while she went away and never came back. I still remember which car parking lot it was (outside Woolworths in Papakura), what colour and make the car was (Green Morris Minor), how hot it was that day (sweltering) and how long it took to get dark (hours).

Of course, in reality, I don’t even have younger siblings, it never got hotter than 25 degrees in Papakura, we never owned a green Morry, and my Mum, though she often left me in the car, was frustratingly diligent about returning a few moments later. It’s strange because why would anybody wish for such circumstances anyway? What an awful reality Dicey faced when she realised the children were her sole responsibility and that she would have to get them hundreds of miles across the country on foot with no money, to the house of a Great Aunty she’d never met. Worse still, to be met by very unwelcome relatives at the other end when she did finally make it. What a devastatingly tough reality to contend with at any age, let alone 13.

But it is the strength of Dicey’s character that attracts you. Her singular determination, her confidence, her good heart and her unwillingness to ever let her spirit be broken. She is a superhero for young girls – and even, it turns out all these years later, mature woman as well.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book ends powerfully, but wasn’t nearly as gripping or as humorous as I had anticipated. Junior’s voice did not reverberate with any real authenticity, nor did the circumstances of his life fit with any conception of reality that rang true for me. It begins with Junior’s fairly explicit description of how the trauma of his birth left him with water on the brain. He survived surgery as a newborn but was left with “all sorts of physical problems.” He has an oversized head, for example, too many teeth, lopsided eyesight, tiny feet, and suffers from seizures and headaches.

Yet despite setting the entire foundation for the novel and for our understanding of Junior as a person, these disabilities are never again referred to in the book. Although he only narrowly avoided brain damage, for example, Junior was never held back intellectually. The opposite in fact – he quickly reveals himself to be of boundless academic ability. He understands intimately that his prospects in life are doomed so long as he stays on the reservation where alcoholism, poverty and violence abounds. So he leaves. He turns his back on his best friend, his family and everything he knows, and enrols in the rich white school in a neighbouring farming town. As if the solution is that simple. And implausibly, it is. Instead of being rejected and ridiculed, this big-headed, short-footed, fat-glasses kid becomes wildly popular, the star shooter on the basketball team and bags the hottest girl in school.

It all feels rather implausible, particularly when Junior reflects on his sometimes turbulent year and cries

I wept and wept because i knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life out in the white world.

It wasn’t as though Junior didn’t celebrate his Indian-ness, and there are certainly moments where he captures the non-tangible treasures of his culture. But it felt as though only one solution to the social ills plaguing his people was ever explored; that being to assert the power of the individual, and ultimately to “get out.”

Which I felt was a rather sad note to leave on.

**Although not an indigenous writer, this book felt like a poor cousin of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. Now THERE’S is a book not to be missed**

Macbeth (A Shakespeare Story)Macbeth by Andrew Matthews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fantastic way to introduce the kids to Shakespeare. We read this in one short sitting and the kids were well enthralled. The illustrations are fantastic and the pace, length and language is perfect. We sat around talking about Macbeth’s folly for quite awhile afterwards too. Highly recommended series (assuming these are part of a series? I will look for others)

Nothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey With MuradNothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey With Murad by Suad Amiry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The premise of this book has everything going for it – a Palestinian woman disguises herself as a man and crosses the Israeli border illegally with a bus load of young men who make this journey on a daily basis in search of work. Two thirds of the way in, Suad Amiry writes:

“If anything, this trip had confused the hell out of me. I had no idea where we had been, where we were, or where we were heading. The more I thought about it, the more I began to worry about my readers: how was I to remember all of this and how was I to explain things for them? If it wasn’t clear to me, then how would my readers understand? Anyway, why should my readers understand something I couldn’t grasp?”

I feel bad saying this, but Amiry was right to worry. It was a big call to ask her readers to understand something which she herself found it hard to make sense of, let alone to communicate. And ultimately? I don’t think she was successful. The book is hard to follow, in the sense that the reader isn’t always made aware of the passage of time in relation to what is coming next. This may be a perfectly accurate reflection of the events and how they unfolded in the moment – but unfortunately it doesn’t make for a coherent reading experience.

Add to that, the narration is infused with personal reflections and occasional political and/or historical references, which rather than provide a much-needed context for the story, only serves to confuse the reader and adds to the muddled-up sense of timing. If a person already has a good understanding of the plight of illegal workers braving the very real dangers of crossing the border to search for work in Israel, then this book might take shape more naturally in their minds. But if it’s your first exposure to the harsh reality of life in the West Bank, it’s likely to leave you with more questions than answers.

To be equally critical of myself, I didn’t commit to this book the time or singular attention it might have deserved. Then again, if a book is powerful enough, that singular attention is earned on its own merits…


Because of Winn-DixieBecause of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot love this book any harder if I tried. If I somehow managed to laminate myself inside the front cover, it still would not be close enough. This is the second time I’ve read it and I can’t believe how perfect it still is. Maybe it’s getting better with (my own) age. Kate DiCamillo is a genius, she is subtle, heartfelt, gripping and her words will bowl you over with their simplicity.

You would not think that you could read aloud a book to a 6 year old that explores guilt, abandonment, grief, alcoholism and longing and have them understand a single word of it. Hell, you would have to ask yourself whether it would even be appropriate. And yet somehow DiCamillo gets away with it. More than that, she makes an achingly wonderful tribute to the beauty and triumph of human – and DOG – relationships, which, even though no substitute for the answers to all these unresolvable questions in life, can make the not knowing bearable.

How’s this scene:

“You always give up!” I shouted. “You’re always pulling your head inside your stupid old turtle shell. I bet you didn’t even go out looking for my mama when she left. I bet you just let her run off, too.”
“Baby,” the preacher said. “I couldn’t stop her. I tried. Don’t you think I wanted to her to stay, too? Don’t you think I miss her every day?” He spread his arms out wide and then dropped them to his side. “I tried,” he said. “I tried.” Then he did something I couldn’t believe.
He started to cry.”

I dare you to read this book and not be affected.

View all my reviews

The One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fabulous book to read aloud – sweet, funny, with a feel good ending. Highly recommended! 8-12 yrs.

 

Two PintsTwo Pints by Roddy Doyle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To read this novel you will need:

An Irish accent
A sense of humour
A solid memory of world events and politics spanning part way through 2011 and into 2012
A high level of tolerance for football, Irish domestic policy, frequent references to popular culture, sarcasm, dry wit and profanity
Approximately 90 minutes of uninterrupted spare time
Someone to gift it on to when you’re done.

 

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