Category Archives: Books

Lock her up – four books about young women who have lost their freedom

I’ve been known to seek out books and movies set in locales which I have plans to visit, but beyond that I don’t often read thematically. That probably makes it all the more remarkable that the four most recent books I’ve read all deal with young women contending with the loss of liberty. Three of the titles were from the historical fiction genre while the third, disturbingly, is currently classified as science fiction. After reading it,though, I’m inclined to believe that that title will eventually be reshelved in realistic fiction. Not a good thing.

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper is a powerful book set in Europe during WWII. The novel opens with the main character, Gerta, being liberated from Bergen-Belsen by British soldiers at the end of the war. I’ve read many Holocaust stories over the years, yet there’s always something new for me to consider and in this novel it was what happened to the survivors once they were nursed back to health and could leave the camp or medical facility? What must that have been like for a teenager who has essentially been orphaned? Another scene in the opening chapter depicting soldiers forcing residents from the nearby community to tour the concentration camp and witness the atrocities which they allowed to occur by their apathy, is another aspect of this tragic time in history that I had never thought of before. What knowledge did citizens have of the victimization of Jews, gays, gypsies and the disabled? How were they able to avert their eyes from what was occurring? This book answers some questions while posing others.

Set in the same era, White Rose by Kip Wilson tells the story of a resistance group which made the ultimate sacrifice during a war that fractured families and devastated Europe. The novel, told in verse, provided insight into the conflict of Germans during WWII and the actions taken by young citizens in an attempt to thwart the Nazis. The selfless bravery of Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose organization, provides inspiration during a time when our own country is teetering on the edge of nationalism and xenophobia. A quote that stopped me dead:

People who
​refuse
to open their eyes
are more than ambivalent –
they are guilty.

Monica Hesse’s The War Outside brings the conflict to our own American shores in the form of the internment of Japanese-Americans and German-Americans during WWII. This historical novel describes what life was like for American citizens who were considered threats to national security despite having lived in America for generations. As the daughter of a German immigrant, I can attest to biases that I personally experienced 25 years after the war – being told to not speak German in public as a child, for instance. The camp, an actual place in Texas known as Crystal City, was depicted as a “family camp” with amenities such as a pool and community garden designed to distract residents from the reality that they were not considered equal citizens in the eyes of our government. I am certain that my family, had they been present during this dark time, would have been subjected to similar treatment.

Now, the Sci-Fi book I mentioned? Internment by Samira Ahmed is a bone chilling read because it seems all too possible in our current political climate. This was the one that made me the most uncomfortable because it relates the story of a Muslim American family who, after responding to a query regarding religion and ethnicity on the national census, find their civil rights being systematically eliminated by the government. No longer able to study, work or live in their communities, Muslim families are shipped to camps where they are separated by ethnicity and suffer limits upon their access to information, technology and loved ones who do not share their same cultural heritage. It is all the more horrifying because it is completely possible under the Trump regime. And – at a time when the federal government is attempting to insert citizenship questions into the upcoming national census that’s not an exaggeration.

What have you been reading? Do you have recommendations to share?

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Making connections

This image makes me happy #picasso

Until recently, I didn’t realize that one of the things that makes me happiest, is making connections. I like when things come together and add up. It feels good. Prior to having this epiphany, I hadn’t really considered the thread of connections I’ve experienced over the years. Below are a couple of recent ones which came to mind and probably helped to inspire this new self awareness I’m feeling..

Last weekend, a friend in Rome posted on the FB seeking someone visiting Rome at that moment and traveling back to the states shortly thereafter. Within 40 seconds I remembered that I had not one, but two friends currently in that exact situation! After a little social media stalking, I observed that one of my friends had departed Rome earlier in the day, but the other friend was fairly nearby and able to help with the international errand being requested. In return, Rome Friend scored seats at my favorite Trattoria for Foodie Friend doing a Favor. How amazing is that?

In a cool and delicious cafe in Northville, Sacandaga Kitchenette, Runner Friend and I talked with a neighboring couple who were lovely. Childhood sweethearts, they looked amazing and were so interesting to speak with about the race, the village we were in, their home Gloversville and, of course, Richard Russo. The wife said she had met him at an event celebrating his generous support of Gloversville’s public library. I confessed my crush. She asked if I had heard of the other author who hailed from that small and somewhat struggling city? Her mother’s cousin, Joseph Persico?

The name was so familiar, and I had a memory of working a party for Dale Miller and Stone Ends and catering an event in someone’s home. I immediately knew Persico was a nonfiction writer, but couldn’t come up with a title of one of his works without the help of Google. The Colin Powell biography rang a bell. I looked at the date it was published, 1995. Yep, that’s exactly when I worked for Dale. I had worked the book publication party at Joe Persico’s House almost 25 years ago. How funny is that?

How much of a connector are you?

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Filed under aging, Albany, Books, friends, Italy, Local, Observations, relationships, travel, Uncategorized, vacation

Finding your voice to Speak and Shout

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, originally published in 1999, is one of those books that has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago. This YA novel relates the story of a high school freshman, Melinda, who is ostracized by her peers because she calls the police while at a party during the summer after eighth grade. What no one other than Melinda knows is that she called for help because she had been sexually attacked by an upperclassman. She told no one. She did not speak.

Recently, I read the graphic novel edition of the title and was completely taken in by the story again. Updated to include social media, cell phones and other contemporary details, the story translated beautifully to the visual medium of a graphic novel. Our copy has already disappeared from the collection, a sure sign to librarians of a book being a winner. We have two more copies on order.

The latest title written by Anderson is Shout, an autobiography written in verse and, again, it is exceptional. Subtitled “The true story of a survivor who refused to be silenced,” this book tells the story, at last, directly from the author’s perspective without the protection a fictional character can provide. It is raw and harrowing and at times deeply sad, but there is a thread of defiance that is awe inspiring. The story manages to span a time period from World War II to #metoo and has left a mark upon me that I suspect will remain forever.

Below are a few of the lines that stole my breath.

 

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Filed under Books, girlhood, Librarians, Libraries, Recommendations, Schools, secrets

I Am Still Alive

The title of the post refers to a really great book I just read, not the fact that I spent a quick and indulgent weekend in Miami, by the way. Kate Alice Marshall’s book, I Am Still Alive, published in 2018, was the perfect vacation read – exciting, well written and an absolute page turner. Let me tell you about it!

 

The story is told in alternating chronology – Before and After. Jess, the protagonist, has survived a devastating car crash which killed her mother and left her scarred with lasting injuries. Her father, who left the family when Jess was a small child, lives in a remote area of Canada and Jess is sent to live with him, an option better than the foster care setting in which she had previously been residing. Or was it?

 

After an unexpected second flight on a much smaller plane, Jess finds herself in a small cabin living with her father and his intimidating half wild dog in the woods, completely away from civilization. She and her father are essentially strangers to one another and Jess recognizes she can’t possibly live in the woods forever. She and her father negotiate that she will remain with him for a single year, a length of time Jess is able to imagine surviving with her dad. Until her Dad is dead and Jess is left alone.

 

What happens next is a tale of survival, learned independence, revenge and ultimately, realizing that we are capable of things we may have never before imagined. Curl up on the couch and settle in to read this one. I’ll be scrolling through photos from my warm MLK getaway.

 

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Filed under Books, holidays, Recommendations, travel, Uncategorized, vacation

Telling stories – Adam Gidwitz

Last week, author Adam Gidwitz visited my school and spent the day doing presentations and hanging out with kids, and it was incredible. I haven’t read everything he’s written, but last year’s The Inquisitor’s Tale was one of my favorite recent reads. It’s a book that is difficult to sort into a definitive genre, but it has historic fiction, fantasy and adventure elements that combine beautifully into a wonderful story told in multiple voices a la The Canterbury Tales. Except that, unlike my high school experience suffering through Chaucer, this book was a joy from start to finish.

Adam did three separate presentations for my students and each was slightly tweaked to meet the population, in this case, our school’s grades of sixth, seventh and eighth. I was totally impressed with his comfort level with our students and his genuine interest in them. For instance, as students were filing in to the auditorium he made a point of introducing himself to those already seated with an easy “Hi, I’m Adam. What’s your name?” His past career as “the worst teacher in NYC,”* was proven impossible to believe. He gets kids.

We had lunch as a group of about 25 and it was relaxed and fun. I know the kids who were present won’t ever forget the experience. It was so cool. The last presentation was with our sixth graders and it was magic to see him wrangle that group of pre-pubescent kids, on the last Friday afternoon of the school year, with just four words: Once upon a time…

Read his books and see him speak, if you have the chance. There’s a possibility that he might pop up in the area next year and I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything.

*laughingly self-defined as such

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Getting run over by The 57 Bus

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Many of the books I read are written for young adults. These include lots of realistic fiction, some fantasy and adventure titles, as well as the occasional nonfiction title. A new box of books arrived the other day in my library – something which still excites even after more than two decades on the job, and I helped myself to a couple of new titles, including The 57 Bus a nonfiction book by Dashka Slater.

You know when you’re reading a book and you find yourself thinking and even talking about it? Well, this is that kind of book. Slater deftly tells the story of two very different teenagers who ride the same city bus for a life changing 8 minutes. She tells the story in brief chapters, a technique I found very effective and one that helps makes the facts related more easily digested. One afternoon on the bus an event occurs during that shared ride which impacts both of their lives, an event which began as a simple prank yet grew to become an incident defined by some as a hate crime.

Oakland, California is a diverse city of 400,000 residents with a wide range of economic levels represented. It has, at times, been cited as the most violent city in America with gangs and guns present in many neighborhoods of the city’s nearly 80 square miles. Oakland was the home of both Sasha and Richard.

Sasha, a teenager who identifies as agender and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, is an intelligent young person with a supportive family and a solid group of friends They (the pronoun they use for themself) attend an alternative high school, wear garments that are typical for both males and females, and are committed to living a life which feels reflective on the exterior of what they are experiencing on the inside.

Richard is a black teenager being raised by his young mom and stepfather in a stable family in a struggling neighborhood. Although he gets into some legal trouble as a juvenile, he is essentially a typical, unmotivated high school boy in an urban school district. The reckless act Richard commits against Sasha is unspeakably horrific, yet not premeditated or truly intended and he in many ways ends up just as scarred as they do.

Reading about the encounter between Sasha and Richard left me breathless and with an aching heart. This is a powerful story that will stay with readers. Read this.

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What William Kennedy gave me on his 90th birthday

Tuesday night I was lucky enough to join an already in progress festive event down at Cafe Capriccio. Gathered together to celebrate Albany’s literary native son William Kennedy’s birthday were dozens of family members, friends and colleagues. I arrived as speakers began to share their thoughts, memories and best wishes and it was remarkable. The evening’s host, New York State Writers Institute director, Paul Grondahl, invited those present to share their own words in Bill’s honor and for a brief second I considered accepting the offer. It probably would have taken 2 more glasses of wine to get me to speak publicly, but the thoughts that were prompted can just as easily be shared here.

Albany has a modern literary tradition thanks to William Kennedy. His characters populate the streets and the imagination of a city which has been maligned and misrepresented for decades, if not centuries. The stories he has told portray a city filled with residents, frequently Irish American, living hardscrabble lives, corrupt, violent and often tragically funny. The struggles of his characters are familiar and universal, yet because they take place in Albany, N.Y., they are our stories. We own them, just like William Kennedy belongs to us, and despite the less than stellar reputations possessed by so many of his characters, we embrace them.

Because of William Kennedy, and his vision in founding the New York State Writer’s Institute, acclaimed authors have visited our area and shared their craft with audiences at no cost to attendees.  As an undergraduate, I was thrilled to listen to Allen Ginsberg and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work. More recently, an in-depth symposium focused on telling the truth in a post-truth era brought heavyweight journalists to our area for a weekend of timely and interesting events.  None of these experiences would have been available without the NYSWI and we as a city are indebted to Bill Kennedy for the opportunities to hear and learn from literary luminaries and embattled professional journalists.

The third gift I received that night was less tangible than the others and I don’t know if I have the words to describe it. The best I can come up with is it was a combined sense of pride, belonging and possibility. As the child of an Irishman I never met, I’ve sought out Irish culture and traditions for as long as I can remember. Witnessing a roomful of people singing a rousing chorus of Molly Malone (and joining in!) fed my soul as delightfully as Jim Rua’s always-prepared-with-love meals feed my belly. The thrill and privilege of being present at such an incredibly special event is something I will never forget. While I don’t imagine ever writing a book, the fact that Ironweed wasn’t published until Bill Kennedy was 55, and that I was present at his 90th birthday party, reminds me that just about anything is possible.

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