Given that it’s now June, I thought I’d reminisce about the books I read in April. That is, if I remember any details about them. My memory is about a month long; after that, all bets are off. Bear that in mind, friends and neighbors.
The Penderwicks – Jeanne Birdsall : I help out with Homework Club at a local elementary school. It’s been so fun to get to know kids in my own town, smart kids who like school but need help with checking their math or writing essays, since their parents struggle to speak English. Two girls, both in fifth grade, have been reading these books, and they told me all about the Penderwick sisters. There are four, you know, and they’re all different. In order to spur conversation, I thought I’d read it too. It’s a very cute book, and I see why these girls liked it. Each of the sisters is different, and every girl will likely find one of the sisters that seems like them. The girls’ mother died a few years before, and they’re learning to live life without her. As a family they’re living in a small cabin on a great estate, where many adventures, mystery, and young love await them. If you know a later elementary girl who is looking for something to read, this would be a great place to start.
Small Steps – Louis Sachar : This is the follow-up to Holes, a book which I absolutely love. Holes never gets old, each time that I read it. This book, on the other hand…not quite the same. Small Steps follows Armpit, one of the boys from the camp. He’s out on probation and on the straight and narrow. But his friend X-Ray is not quite so, and gets him into a harebrained scheme that involves a teen pop singer, Kaira DeLeon. The story is less fresh than Holes and lacks the magic of the original. Obviously, I’m not the target audience, but even so, it’s a little too fantastical: in the Disney Channel Original Movie way, but not a supernatural, gripping way. Even so, it has an interesting undercurrent of racism and the profiling of the larger and blacker of folks, and how hard it is to turn one’s life around. Social commentary wrapped up in a teen pop star love story.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J. K. Rowling : There’s not much to be said about the penultimate book of Rowling’s saga. Well, it’s hugely long and immensely enjoyable, despite the abundance of teen angst and desire for acceptance. Harry continues to have to take on more responsibility as, you know, the “Chosen One,” and he learns more about his foe. This book largely feels like exposition for the final book, which it is, but it’s also an interesting fictional perspective on how a nation at war responds. Like science fiction, fantasy can give a perspective on our current world but soften the blow, since these are things not happening in our own sphere. The closer you look the more parallels you see, and the distance makes you see them for what they truly are. Government will always try to spin things, to make its citizens feel safe and positive, and when all that fails, find a scapegoat. Kids who read these books are learning things about the world they live in that they will see repeated in the public sector in disturbing ways. Kudos to Rowling for her bravery.
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson : This was the book club offering for April, and it was far outside of my usual fare. So many things about it were interesting: the writing style, the scope of the culture, the characters we encountered. I don’t know that much about North Korea – which is the way North Korea would want it – but the threads of propaganda and complete control the government had over the people is astounding. I find myself curious as to what the author did for reasearch. Beyond just the setting, which was fascinating and horrifying to me, the writing style was sparse, nearly like it was translated. There were sections of state propganda mixed in with the primary narrative, a split happening halfway through the novel. We follow Jun Do, the son of an orphan master, a fighter, a kidnapper, a translator, a code-breaker, a pawn, as he navigates through his world and does his best to survive. The second half is the tale of Commander Ga, national hero and husband of the actress Sun Moon, written in the first-person from the man who is interrogating him after his severe fall from grace. Fascinating stuff, though it took me quite a while to get into.