Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Vive la Paris by Esme Raji Codell (2006)

I was amazed by the hard issues discussed in this young adult book (free advance proof from ALA). Paris is the youngest of five, the only girl in a black family, whose father is a musician. She is bright and well liked. Her father sends her to piano lessons with Mrs. Rosen, and old Jewish lady, who teaches her more than music. I'd really like to see what kids get out of this book, but it was written from Paris' viewpoint and it made sense that kids could easily misinterpret things. When Mrs. Rosen shows Paris her the number tatooed on her arm, Paris associates it with what she has just learned about gangs getting tatoos. She hasn't been taught about the Holocaust - probably a hard thing to teach school kids - and she is only in 5th grade. When Paris starts reading about it, she is overwhelmed. Somehow the author manages to weave together Martin Luther King, the Holocaust, bullying, and gay issues - though the latter are not explicitly stated. It reminds me that the blacks and Jews have a lot in common, but as we move further away from WWII, how many people will understand the significance of the Holocaust and how "we need all kinds of people to make a world," as Paris writes in her report. It is scary to read the lists about what our current university students have or have not known in their lives, who have never known the Soviet Union, never mind the horrors of WWII or Viet Nam. They have Iraq, but are we learning tolerance and acceptance of other people's from that?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006)

I really enjoyed listening to this book about Jacob Jankowski, an almost veterinarian, who loses his family and ends up working for a circus in 1931. This rich story gives us a sense of lives during the Depression. This is not a glamorous running away with the circus story, but a nitty-gritty one, mostly about behind the scenes, the caste system, and all the hard work that goes into setting up a circus, taking care of the animals, feeding all the workers, traveling, etc. Apparently Gruen has done quite a bit of research and shares all the terminology, like rubes, roustabouts, redlighting, etc. I always like to see Cornell mentioned - that was the vet school Jacob was attending, before he dropped out right before final exams. Jacob lands in this circus by chance and is kept on because of his vet skills. He falls in love with Marlena, the equestrian performer, who has a paranoid schizophrenic husband. Of course there is an elephant in the story, but my only disappointment was that the reference to watering elephants in the beginning, as if there was a secret to the job, was never explained - or I missed it somewhere.

The other part of the book, which made it so wonderful, was Jacob's story at the end of his life - told by him as a 90 (or is it 93) year old man in a nursing home. It was read in a gravely voice and conveyed all the indignities of the life in a nursing home. Jacob has one nurse who treats him with respect. Having worked with the elderly at one point in my life and having to take care of my dad at 94, I can relate. The narration alternates between the young and elderly Jacob - both of them telling the story very well, and it all comes together in a satisfying ending.

Monticello: A Guidebook (1997)

After touring Thomas Jefferson's house Monticello, I wanted to read more about him and the place, so I bought the requisite guidebook, which told the story of the house, the gardens, the plantation, and the people that lived there, including the slaves. Jefferson has been one of my favorite American historical figures, so it might be time to read up on him a bit more.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Summer Guest by Justin Cronin (2004)

I have to thank the literary criticism class I saw in the library for this one. I really enjoyed it. Tritely I could say it is about love and war and family and relationships and the beauty of nature, but it is very well written. Each chapter is told by one of the main characters, which can get a bit confusing as sometimes they are talking about the present, but much of it is flashbacks to different parts of their lives - and not in a sequential order. Somehow, it all comes together beautifully.

Joe sr. comes home from WW II having lost an eye, purchases a camp on an unspoiled lake in Maine, and moves his family there. Joe jr. comes of age during the Vietnam War and his father strongly encourages him to evade the draft; he returns to marry Lucy and run the camp. Their daughter Kate goes off to med school. Jordan is their employee, who takes people like Harry, the perennial guest, out on the lake to fish. The camp was an ideal place for all of these characters - on soothing water, within the healing beauty of nature, but still in contact with other people - providing the experience of nature for others. I see Joe sr. making the decision to not be in the public eye with his deformed face, I see the love Joe jr. had for the place, and Jordan, my favorite character, who has the deep pain that only a place like this can heal. They all live parts of their lives someplace else, but end up returning here.

Cronin does a wonderful job of getting into the hearts and minds of these people. I can relate to their concerns, hard life choices, disappointments. I relate very deeply to finding peace and comfort by the lake in Maine. I remember a phase in my life, when I felt that was my ideal - living away from it all. Now I wonder what it was that I wanted to get away from - civilization? cement? the rush and stress? people? I don't think that I felt as comfortable with people at that time, or I somehow thought I didn't need many people, but after living in the country for three years in the early 1980's I found myself wanting the city and a wider variety of people. I think I have found my ideal - on the water (OK, it's just a pond, but it has wonderful wildlife), in suburbia, small metropolitan area with plenty of cultural opportunities, enough diversity, and a job about which I am passionate.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

House of Scorta by Laurent Gaude (2005)

As with The Last Song of Dusk, this book had its own feel and pace from another part of the world. The small southern Italian village of Montepuccio from 1870's to the recent past is the setting. The story begins with a man coming to this town for revenge after serving a prison sentence. He leaves behind a son, Rocco, who grows up to pillage and terrorize the area and when he dies, leaves Carmela and her brothers to fend for themselves. They open a tobacco shop, work at becoming respectable citizens, and have families of their own. The story is of ongoing generations struggling to survive, to find their place in the world, to find happiness and love. This just gave a glimpse into those struggles in one Italian family.

As a child of immigrants, the moment when Carmela is not let into America for health reasons was poignant. It reminded me that not everyone who tried to immigrate made it, and today the numbers of those wanting to immigrate, but being turned back are much greater.

I don't regret listening to this, it just wasn't my favorites. Something about the raw passions and despair that is also in a lot of Latvian literature just didn't provide the most satisfying read. I don't mind emotion and hard times, and the next book I'll describe - Summer Guest - has plenty of both, but the latter is presented in a way that speaks to me. Maybe it's an American - European thing. I later found out that this is an award winning French book in translation.