A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein

Here in the attic of Shel Silverstein you will find Backward Bill, Sour Face Ann, the Meehoo with an Exactlywatt, and the Polar Bear in the Frigidaire. You will talk with Broiled Face and find out what happens when somebody steals your knees; you will get caught by the Quick-Digesting Gink and find out what happens when they put a brassiere on a camel.

“They’ve put a brassiere on the camel. She wasn’t dressed proper, you know. They’ve put a brassiere on the camel so that her humps wouldn’t show. And they’re making other respectable plans. They’re event insisting the pigs should wear pants. They’ll dress up the ducks if we give them the chance since they’ve put a brassiere on the camel…” (pg. 166)

This collection of poems and drawings was gifted to me fifteen or so years ago and, unfortunately, I never finished reading the whole thing when I fell within the intended audience. I was not a fan of poetry at the time and passed over the book for years.

Oh, how I wished I had not. Included in this collection are funny poems, serious poems, and poems featuring the bizarre. The poem asking what happens when you put a brassiere on a camel reminded me of another childhood favorite explaining why animals — most especially porcupines — do not wear clothes.

And I enjoyed seeing how Silverstein integrated his drawings into his poems. The poem featuring a snake saying ‘I love you’ comes immediately to mind, but there are others such as “Rockabye” and “Homework Machine” that complimented the poem in a humorous way.

“Said the little boy, ‘Sometimes I drop my spoon’. Said the little old man, ‘I do that too’. The little boy whispered, ‘I wet my pants’. ‘I do that too,’ laughed the little old man. Said the boy, ‘I often cry’. The old man nodded, ‘So do I’. ‘But worst of all,’ said the boy, ‘it seems grown-ups don’t pay attention to me’. And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand. ‘I know what you mean,’ said the little old man.” (pg. 95)

Nestled within the collection are poems I probably would have glossed over or been unable to appreciate to the same degree as I can now. Silverstein actually deals with rather serious issues in some of his poems — my favorite being “The Little Boy and the Old Man” (printed above) — and I love how he is able to converse with his audience on every thing from the serious to the humorous in a witty manner. Should I ever have kids or nieces and nephews, I will be sure to pull this one from the shelf and share it with them before they reach their twenties.

Book Mentioned:

  • Silverstein, Shel. A Light in the Attic. New York: HarperCollins, 1981. Print. 175 pgs. ISBN: 0060256737. Source: Gift.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © HarperCollins. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.

Roots by Alex Haley

Subtitled “The Saga of an American Family”, Haley’s book begins in the eighteenth century with the story of Kunta Kinte, a young African male of the Mandinka people captured from present-day Gambia and sold into slavery in 1767. The story progresses through the lives of seven generations of Kunta Kinte’s descendants and is largely based upon the stories passed down to Haley by his Grandmother Cynthia, whose father was emancipated from slavery in 1865.

There is some debate whether or not Haley’s book should be shelved as fiction or nonfiction but, regardless of genre, it is clear why this sweeping saga won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The beauty of this story lies in its presentation of people — their emotions, the intimacy of their relationships, the horrors of their situations — and the way these characters are determined to keep their family together in memory when slavery kept them physically separated.

It is difficult to image these characters were singularly created by Haley; they seem to mirror real people in a way not always found in a novel. What happened to the characters may appear to be overused tropes in literature, but the characters themselves are so beautifully written that they transcend this charge.

I listened to the audiobook and so I cannot back this statement up with page numbers, but it felt as though much of the story was focused on Kunta Kinte’s life with his grandson, Chicken George, receiving a fair amount of attention compared to Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. It felt very much as though she was the medium between the two man who interested Haley the most, and this feeling as well as the rushed presentation of the connection between Chicken George and the author would be my only complaints about the novel as a whole.

That said, the time spent detailing Kunta Kinte’s life in present-day Gambia — his culture, his family, his traditions — and his adjustment (for lack of a better word) to slavery in the United States contained some of the most emotionally evocative passages in the book. At no time did I feel impassive as I listened to the seemingly indescribable fear and sense of loss Kunta Kinte experienced as he was transported across the ocean in chains, renamed “Toby”, or forced to abandon his religion and his language.

Admittedly, I avoided this book for so long because of its sheer size — 729 pages in paperback — and I am glad I turned to the audiobook, which is a little over thirty hours in length, narrated by Avery Brooks to help me overcome my timidity towards the novel. Brooks’ voice is just lovely — deep, warm, infused with emotion as just the right moment — and his narration added to my love of the characters and the story they reside in.

Book Mentioned:

  • Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Narrated by Avery Brooks. London: BBC Audio, 2007. Originally published 1976. 30 hours, 7 minutes. ISBN: 9781602831971. Source: Library.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © BBC Audio. Retrieved: January 5, 2015.

Ten Favorite Reads From 2014

This has been quite the year for me — finished my last semester of school, graduated with my masters degree, moved across the country (twice!), started working full-time, and settled into life as a adult (whatever that means). I read 63 books in 2013 and thought my goal to read seventy-five books in 2014 would be a stretch. This year certainly felt busier than last year, and I think the fact that I read zero books in February and April and only two in March is a testimony to that.

Yet, here I am on the last day of 2014 with 150 books read! So I guess there is an upside to being hit by a car and unable to do much beside lay on the couch. Although, I would gladly trade away some of my stats for the year to avoid ever reliving that experience.

According to GoodReads, I read 37,678 pages in 2014 ranking this year fifth out of the seven I’ve logged on the site. The numbers might be a bit skewed — this year ranks as third in terms of the number of total books read — because nine of the 150 books I read were comics/graphic novels and 36 were audiobooks.

I didn’t keep a spreadsheets of my stats this year so I can’t break down my reading to the detail I have in the past beyond the basics — 62% fiction versus 38% nonfiction, 63% female authors versus 37% male, 81% library books, and 65% printed books. (For the first time, audiobooks jumped to double digits — a whopping 23%.) Instead, I thought I would offer up ten of the best and most memorable reads of the year. Continue reading

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke, the narrator, begins her autobiography in the middle: a seemingly bizarre incident where an unknown woman becomes violent in the middle of a cafe after her boyfriend breaks up with her and Rosemary joins in by climbing on the table and dropping her glass of milk. The charges against Rosemary are dropped after a phone call to her father, who extracts a promise from Rosemary that nothing like this will ever occur again and that she will discuss the incident when she arrives home for Thanksgiving.

Yet the adults in the Cooke family do not discuss problems affecting the children — not Rosemary’s arrest, not Rosemary’s brother who is a fugitive wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism, and certainly not Rosemary’s sister who disappeared one day without trace or explanation. The loss of their sister affects Rosemary and her brother in different ways and at different stages in their lives. For Lowell, the loss immediately changes the course of his life; for Rosemary, the loss is only examined after her arrest.

Fowler has the distinction of being one of the first American authors nominated for the Booker Prize with this novel. It is not hard to draw parallels between her novel and her upbringing based on GoodReads’ brief autobiographical sketch — born in Bloomington, Indiana to a father who studied animal behavior, particularly learning, and eventually became a student at University of California at Davis.

The link to animal behavior is revealed about a third of the way into the book, although readers familiar with the narrator of Franz Kafka’s Report for an Academy will probably pick up on it earlier. (I have not read any of Kafka’s work, but this particular book was discussed at length in a history course I took in college.) The cover of the novel also gives this particular point away, but I will caution that the rest of my review contains spoilers.

As the novel moves from the middle of Rosemary’s story to the beginning, it is slowly explained that Rosemary and her sister, Fern, were included in an experiment designed to test the learning abilities of humans and chimpanzees. Roughly the same age, Rosemary is raised alongside a chimp named Fern (yes, that Fern) whilst her father and his team of graduate student document their behavior and cognitive abilities. As Rosemary reaches the age where she should be entering kindergarten, however, a single event — a single like — makes it apparent that the research project can no longer continue and Fern is removed from the Cooke family.

This is not the first novel I had read featuring chimpanzees and addressing the ethics of performing research tests on the animal, even something seemingly as harmless as sign language proficiency. In that regard, I think the novel failed to foster the same emotional connection between the reader and the topic at hand.

Fowler’s novel certainly provides new insight — I was particularly struck by the statement that chimps will skip any unnecessary steps to get food out a puzzle box after a demonstration while human children will copy each step regardless of its necessity — but I felt the family dynamics were not as developed as they could have been.

I understand that Rosemary’s family members were largely removed from her life and that her memory of events as a small child are supposed to be unreliable, but she seemed unable to connect with or understand their emotions, which hinder the plot given that she is a narrator. Harlow, the woman who freaked out in the cafe, and Rosemary’s landload, Ezra, were given far too much importance for a novel supposedly focused on family.

There is a clear agenda behind the novel; one that seems to echo those taken in other novels I have read on the topic. I would not say it challenged my perceptions or opinions the way other books have, but the decision to address research on the ability of chimps to learn languages and human behaviors through the close bond of a human child raised alongside a chimpanzee was an interesting one, although it was not as executed as well as I had hoped.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013. Print. 310 pgs. ISBN: 9780399162091. Source: Library.
Book Cover © G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Retrieved: December 28, 2014.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Raised in a Mennonite household haunted by remembers of religious persecution in Russia, Elfrieda and Yolandi are expected to conform to particular expectations for their life and live in a community where people gossip and whisper about the nonconformists. Elfrieda, known as Elf to her family, is a progeny at the piano offering her an opportunity to escape from the insular community and her sister, known as Yoli, an example of someone who is able to leave and live a glamorous, wealthy, and happy life.

Twenty years or so later, Yoli’s life has dissolved into a mess — two teenage children who are distant and moody, a divorce, existence near the poverty line — and the happiness in Elf’s life is evident only at the surface because, like their father, Elf wishes to end her life. Still struggling to cope with her father’s suicide, Yoli is trying to do everything in her power to keep her sister hospitalized and alive but must eventually decide which course of action is most appropriate for her sister.

Toews’ book was largely favored to win the 2014 Giller Prize; The Globe and Mail‘s infographic on the 2014 shortlist stated that nineteen members of their thirty member panel selected Toews’ novel as the winner. I can clearly see why it was so heavily favored given the topic as the moral and ethical dilemma of suicide, particularly assisted suicide, can be explored in a myriad of complex, logical, and emotional ways.

Yet I found Toews’ exploration failed to incite much of an emotional reaction on my part. She sets the characters up to have this complex religious upbringing only to largely drop their history as the story progresses. The lack of insight into the characters and their largely inauthentic responses was not something I expected after learning the book is semi-autobiographical.

Primarily, I think I struggled with the book because the reader’s understanding of Elf is filtered through her sister making it difficult to truly view Elf or, for that matter, Yoli as separate characters as they each come to terms with Elf’s desire to commit suicide. There seems to be no reason for Elf’s suicidal tendencies because Yoli does not believe anything can explain her sister’s severe depression. In other words, her “green eyed monster” attitude towards her sister’s life seems to color not only her interactions with her sister but her willingness to understand Elf’s mental health.

There also isn’t much of a narrative structure to this book as it jumps from past to present within chapters. The past is meant to explain the present; the present continues on in a series of mundane activities with Elf’s suicides interrupting Yoli’s tortuous hatred for her own life.  I rarely find novels written in steam of consciousness work for me and this novel was no exception.

Book Mentioned:

  • Towes, Miriam. All My Puny Sorrows. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2014. Print. 330 pgs. ISBN: 9781940450278. Source: Library.
Book Cover © McSweeney’s. Retrieved: December 28, 2014.