Reading Challenges are a great way to introduce oneself to books one normally wouldn’t read. I decided to tackle Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads titles before the next book- My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor- is distributed in 2014.
Here are my reviews of the selections so far.
2003- A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines-I was hesitant at first to read this because of the similarities with The Other Wes Moore (which I just read recently) but I was immediately hooked. Not particularly a tearjerker but moving nonetheless. I liked how it ended even though not everything was tied up nicely. There was still a sense of closure.
2004- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury- Fahrenheit 451 is a book that most everybody has probably read. The issues of censorship and the media’s power and control over the population are still relevant. It’s scary to think that the dystopian future Bradbury envisioned sometimes play out in our time. I think I’m way overdue to reread this classic.
2005- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros- I know of The House on Mango Street as a book students buy because they have to as part of their required reading. That’s partly why I decided to give it a try. At the same time, though, that was also why I was hesitant to pick it up. It seems to me a lot of good books are ruined by being forced upon students. Of course, it’s great to be exposed to new and different things but too overanalyze things will ruin the experience. But my issue with that is a whole other matter.
I was surprised by how sparse the text was. The simple, lyrical and seemingly disparate prose reveals a much-larger story of a young Latin girl and the lessons she learns in and out of the house on Mango Street.
This is a good book to see things through someone else’s eyes and to challenge oneself to go deeper than what’s on the written page.
2006- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini- I finished watching The Kite Runner– a good enough movie but it just goes to show how much is lost between the book and the film. A positive thing that the movie had going for it was how it was able to skip the parts that dragged the book down especially the melodramatic incidents of the last chapters. It was also fascinating to learn through the bonus features how international the whole film project was from the cast and crew to the locale- Afghanistan was shot in China!
The Kite Runner is such a story about friendship, redemption and forgiveness that it was easy to get emotional while watching the movie but not necessarily because of the scenes playing out. My mind was going off on all kinds of tangents. It’s sad that war and poverty is still so much a way of life. And, equally sad is how religion gets twisted to justify violence. And I thought of simpler times in general. Oh, nostalgia! The movie also made me wish I was more aware and in tune of my culture.
I gave this book out for the first World Book Night in the US. I needed to refresh my memory so I read the graphic novel. While it’s great that this format can reach out to a new demographic, so much of what made it wonderful is lost.
2007- Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates- This was quite scandalous and thereby very hard to put down. It’s about secrets and sacrifices. It’s about figuring out who we are in terms of our families and friends, where we’re from and where we’re raised. It’s hard to imagine being put in a similar situation.
2008- A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah- I’ve been hesitant to read memoirs ever since the whole Three Cups of Tea controversy. There were definitely some parts where I questioned the possibility of events really happening. Aside from my cynical point of view about memoirs, the writing was good. The subject matter- of kids becoming soldiers because of horrific circumstances- is hard to comprehend that it’s a way of life in some places, even now.
2009- Stubborn Twig by Lauren Kessler- This is a fascinating read about “three generations of in the life of a Japanese American family.” We read of their hard work and dedication to make a name for themselves. But there’s also the cruel prejudice they endured over many years because they weren’t Americans. Those parts were so hard to read because of all the hate & racism that was prevalent not that long ago. It’s sad how we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes, finding other groups of people to do all those horrible things to.
It’s interesting to read about their culture. The importance of family and fulfilling one’s roles. The drive that makes them successful. The pressure that can make them end it all. One minute you think they’re the most perfect human being but then you get another side of them that’s flawed. So they seemed very realistically portrayed. I even watched the documentary (made by one of the third-generation Yasui) that was mentioned in the book.
Stubborn Twig really gave me a lot to think about.
2010- The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson- The writing’s good and the subject is fascinating but I just couldn’t get into it. This book took me forever to get through. Probably because I don’t usually like reading non-fiction. I did like how it read sort of like a mystery especially when the pieces started to come together. I appreciated all the research that went into this and the connections between the past and present day. The last chapter was kind of depressing, though, and unnecessary.
2011- The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore- An eye-opening book about the choices we make in life. Although, admittedly, at times, we may not know what other choices we have. It’s easy to judge others and their situations but, unless we put ourselves in their shoes, we really can’t know why they did what they did.
2012- The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow- I hadn’t planned on reading The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. I thought it was going to be a heavy handed novel about being bi-racial- like an after-school special with a Very Important Lesson. Fortunately, I ended up getting a copy and I couldn’t put it down. It was just that good!
While the book does deal with race, this is ultimately a story about identity- and the color of Rachel’s skin is just one factor in discovering who she is.
Who is Rachel Morse? She’s the daughter of an African-American father and Danish mother. She’s the new girl with light brown skin and blue eyes in a mostly black community. She’s the girl who fell from the sky- and survived. This is her story of trying to figure out how she fits in in a world where people are summed up in one word.
Heidi Durrow created a wonderful supporting cast of characters, shifting between their points of views throughout the novel, parceling out just enough information to keep the readers turning the pages. This was craftily written. I would be reading the book and, in a seemingly throwaway line, the story steps it up even another notch.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a great read on the most basic level- but does have important things to say as well.
2013- Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie- I was instantly hooked when I picked up Ten Little Indians. I just wanted to stay home and read through the whole thing but I also wanted to take the time to enjoy each of the stories before going on to the next one. I was impressed by how each story sounded different yet there were some things that were mentioned or touched upon repeatedly. Each one was better than the last.
2013-The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Illustrated by Ellen Forney– Sherman Alexie’s a writer who’s been recommended to me for the longest time. When I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a few years ago, I liked how relatable the main character was. While this followed a similar arc to many coming of age stories out there, of the protagonist persevering through whatever challenges came their way and ended up being better for them, this was somehow different and refreshing.
With its strong but honest language and a lot of the subjects covered, I can see why certain groups may be offended with the book and may want it banned. But I think that’s what a great story does. It makes us uncomfortable in its ability to mirror our lives and ourselves in its pages.
I even got to see Sherman Alexie speak during the Everybody Reads lecture!
Looking back, the books about identity and family were the books that resonated with me the most. Books can help us find others like us, whether it be non-fiction or fiction. They can help us best understand ourselves and others. I can’t wait to read the next Everybody Reads book- and to see what kind of discussions it brings up!