Monthly Archives: January 2019

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

american marriageCelestial and Roy had been married for a year now, and they were just beginning to talk about babies when they went to visit his parents for the holidays. While they were fast asleep in the middle of the night, police broke into their hotel room and dragged Roy away. An old woman he had been kind to earlier in the evening had been raped, and although she couldn’t see her attacker in the dark, she pinned it on Roy. He went to prison for being a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their families were in shock, and a well-connected uncle immediately went to work to get Roy released. Celestial visited him regularly, and at home she toiled harder than ever to succeed in her doll-making business, along with the help of her childhood friend, André. Roy got a new cellmate, an older man who became a mentor. The years went by, and they each made a life for themselves. Nothing happened as they had planned, but they had to keep on living and making the best choices they could.

Tayari Jones’ novel, an Oprah pick and on many “Best of 2018” lists, deals with a myriad of issues that tie into and flow out of one another. Certainly, racism in our criminal justice system is front and center, but while news stories concentrate on the injustice to the individual, Jones takes us inside a relationship, a young marriage that is imperfect and just trying to find its footing, but filled with hopes and dreams waiting to come to fruition. When the husband is incarcerated, it is not just a crime against him, but it also tears a rift across his wife’s life, the lives of his parents, her parents, their friends, and even the children they might have had. It creates a ripple effect spreading out from their little circle of two.

Jones also examines marriage itself. All couples bring baggage into a relationship, and who can say what would have happened if Roy had never gone to jail? Perhaps he would have been successful in business, or perhaps his uneasiness about the difference in their families’ finances would have overcome him. Perhaps he would have been supportive of Celestial’s business, or perhaps jealousy may have made him petty and broken their marriage apart. Perhaps children would have healed all of their problems, or perhaps they would have thrown them into sharper relief. Celestial and Roy will never know what their marriage was meant to be, because their involuntary separation has become the defining issue of their lives, and while that may not be the true cause of every problem they face, it will certainly bear the blame.

This compelling story reveals the complexities of all American families, generations filled with secrets and bound by blood, love, betrayal, and compromise. The chapters are told in turn by the main characters, giving the reader a sympathetic understanding of everyone’s perspective. All of the characters are realistically flawed, and I remember telling a colleague one morning, “At this point, I’m just furious with all of them,” but I couldn’t wait to get back home to see what happened to them. Celestial and Roy will get under the readers’ skin and stay with them long after the novel is closed.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

louisiana's way home“The day of reckoning has arrived,” said Louisiana Elefante’s granny before she packed her in the car at 3 AM and headed away from their home in Florida. Somewhere near the Georgia state line, Granny started moaning and moved into the back seat, leaving twelve-year-old Louisiana to drive off the interstate and find a dentist in a strange town.

The problems all go back to the curse of sundering that Louisiana’s family has carried ever since her magician great-grandfather sawed her great-grandmother in half on stage and neglected to put her back together. Her trapeze-artist parents, the Flying Elefantes, died long ago in a tragic accident, and she and Granny have only one another to lean on. However, as Granny often tells her, she is wily and resourceful, and besides, she can sing.

Louisiana will need all of her resourcefulness, as well as that of her new friend, Burke Allen— son of Burke Allen, son of Burke Allen—to help her with the unexpected catastrophes that befall her in this delightful and tragic story. Readers may remember Louisiana from DiCamillo’s earlier novel, Raymie Nightingale (reviewed here), in which we learn that she is the winner of the Little Miss Central Florida Tire beauty pageant. Two years later, she is still taking her grandmother’s practical and somewhat devious advice, such as:

“It is best to smile. That is what Granny has told me my whole life. If you have to choose between smiling and not smiling, choose smiling. It fools people for a short time. It gives you an advantage.” (p. 11)

Kate DiCamillo is one of the most consistently excellent children’s authors living today. She turns out book after book for younger and older children, and all are instant classics. Her distinctive characters– from porcine wonders to heroic mice to diminutive beauty queens– are stalwart and brave, even when their circumstances are tragic. The dialogue is precocious, hilarious, and poignant. DiCamillo understands that children are rarely in control of their lives, but that there is enough love in the world to rescue all of us, if we can just find it—or give it.

Although Louisiana is twelve, this is a middle-grade novel, like its companion. It is not necessary to read Raymie Nightingale in order to enjoy Louisiana’s Way Home, but why would you deprive your child of the chance to read two Kate DiCamillo books?

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike and Trina Schart Hyman

Child's CalendarOur library system runs a report to find titles that are getting low on copies, and we selectors review it to find the gems that need to be re-ordered. Some titles and series are deservedly going out of print, but others are beloved classics that every library should keep forever. I was intrigued to find A Child’s Calendar— which I had never read— on that report, so not only did I order more copies, I also checked out a copy for myself.

I knew John Updike as the celebrated author of adult books like Rabbit, Run or The Witches of Eastwick, and many others, and was unaware that he had written this collection of poems for children. Originally published in 1965, Updike made many changes and reprinted the volume in 1999. There is a poem for each month of the year, sweet and nostalgic, with traditional families and realistic humor. Here is the last stanza of the March poem:

The mud smells happy
On our shoes.
We still wear mittens,
Which we lose.

Child's Calendar interiorPerhaps the best part of this discovery was that Updike chose one of my favorite illustrators for the updated edition. Trina Schart Hyman uses rich colors and black outlines to create busy, charming family scenes. Her diverse children and adults live in mostly rural and small-town settings, displaying both the labor and laughter of everyday life. There is usually at least one hilarious detail in each tableau, and despite the beauty of the illustrations, they are miles away from treacle.

Snow WhiteHyman illustrated more than 150 books in her lifetime, many award winners. She won a Caldecott Medal for her version of Snow White, a more traditional and serious rendition than the Disney story, with heartbreakingly beautiful pictures. A Child’s Calendar won a Caldecott Honor. My first introduction to her work was as a homeschooling mom when we read Margaret Hodges’ St. George and the Dragon, a selection from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, in which England’s patron saint rescues Una, the one true faith, from the evil dragon of heresy. St George and the DragonBut your child doesn’t need to know all that. It’s just a great adventure story, with a handsome knight, a beautiful maiden, and a scary dragon. Besides the full-page paintings, Hyman decorates the text in the fashion of a medieval manuscript. Poring over the details is a delight.

 

Surprisingly, Updike and Hyman were both born in Pennsylvania and later moved to New England. As a result, there is much more snow in their calendar than we will ever see in North Carolina, but our warm children can experience sledding and icicles in these pages. Other scenes of planting, raking leaves, and going to the beach may be more familiar. This is a book to treasure for generations.

A lovely way to feed little souls.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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