Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sprout Spokane Collaboration: The rest of the summer reading list

Thank you for rejoining us! I appreciate you hopping around to complete the list with Joey  ……

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The only concern I have about reviewing this book is that I won't do it any justice. Nobody could. What I can say, though, is that The Book Thief is more than a bound collection of words on paper, it's an experience. The characters consume you and will break your heart.

The story is set during the Holocaust, and there's some debate as to whether this is a twist that shouldn't be revealed, but the narrator is not who you would expect.

The writing is spectacular, and character development is precise and haunting, but the beauty of the book is in its narrator. You instantly trust him, and although he is a neutral commentator throughout the book, you grow to love him and feel for him during what he occasionally describes as one of his busiest periods in history. The other character of note (although I believe they all are developed equally well, she just happens to be the heroine) is Liesel.

In one act of thievery, Liesel Meminger changes the path of her life and that of the unseen narrator's who takes an interest in the girl. The stolen item is a book, The Grave Digger's Handbook, found near her brother's graveside. With the help of her foster father, she uses the manual to learn to read. With book burnings commonplace in Nazi Germany, she has to risk her life at times in order to fuel her desire to learn.

Through Liesel, the reader experiences life and the good and bad it has to offer. Through our narrator, the reader experiences death and the good and bad it has to offer. And - most importantly - between our heroine and storyteller, the reader experiences something that we all look for in a book, a collection of characters -- some who are friends, some who are not -- who you will remember for a lifetime and pull from your bookshelf again and again.

Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen

Rough, perhaps, but still enjoyable.

Nguyen, author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, plays on the themes of family (sisterhood in particular), cultures, and the differences we find in both that tend to tear us apart as well as bring us closer – if we let them.

She focuses most of the novel on sisters, Van and Linny, and tells of how their lives intersect at their father’s citizenship celebration during a time of deep turmoil. Although each display impressive amounts of stubbornness, which allows for a long-standing family tension to get in the way of any type of reconciliation, both are more alike than either realize.

Straight-laced lawyer Van’s picture-perfect marriage is quietly falling apart, and fashionable party girl Linny’s secret affair with a married man is tearing her up. Without knowing it – or at the very least, without wanting to admit it – each are in desperate need of a sister to confide in. Being brought back together at this juncture in their lives is exactly what the other needs.

I’ll admit, it was the title that sold me (I’m only 4’11” myself), but I’m glad it did. I enjoyed the fractured nature of the sisters’ relationship, even if it was a bit trite and predictable on occasion. Nguyen is a talented writer who I’m excited to watch … er, grow.

Sophomoric at times, extremely touching at others, Short Girls is well worth a read.

Sara Gruen, author

I’m doing something different here and reviewing an author. One, in fact, who doesn’t quite yet deserve to be reviewed as an author on her own yet. As far as I’m concerned, someone like Stephen King or Richard Russo are the types of writers who would deserve their own space, not necessarily someone like Gruen.

The reason I am setting her apart, though, is because of the schizophrenic nature of her writing (so far, at least). I want to review her most-recent book Ape House, but there is no way, in good conscience, I can recommend that anyone go out and buy it. And the truth is, I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to. And for about 50 pages I did, but then it unraveled. Her writing held muster – which is a good sign – but the plot fell apart, almost to the point of being ridiculous.

On the other hand, I am completely head-over-heels in love with Water for Elephants. Beautifully written and truly original, Gruen’s story is set during the Great Depression and starts after the tragic death of Jacob Jankowski’s parents. Alone and penniless (soon after the funeral he discovers that his father’s farm and veterinary practice has been mortgaged to the hilt to pay for his college education) Jacob, an Ivy League veterinary student, literally hops a train and finds himself aboard a traveling circus car.

Without at job – and now without a home – Jacob seizes the opportunity to use his knowledge and love for animals to earn a living as the animal trainer for the traveling show. After befriending – and ultimately falling in love with – Marlena, a beautiful ex-ballerina and the star of the main event, he soon learns that behind the glitz and glamour of a circus production lays dark secrets and deadly jealousies.

A love story that is filled with passion, intrigue and a most unusual heroine, Water for Elephants is an absolute must-read.

 And, there you have it, a few of my favorites for summer -- or really any time of year, especially considering summertime really isn't that summery this year.  


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