Monthly Archives: February 2012

What am I, an Adult?

Okay so I’ve gone and read yet another adult book.  Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay was powerful and poignant and a must read!

She was ten when they came.  The pounding at the door, the fear written on her mother’s face, the terror and determination of her little brother not to be taken.  He hides in their secret place, the cupboard in his room.  It was a cleverly disguised place, looking like part of the wall.  You couldn’t even see where the key hole was.  She tells him to hide there and she will come back for him, keeping the key in her little pocket.  They are taken first on a bus ride to a large stadium where they stay for days, the yellow stars on their clothes labeling them.  Next, separation from the men– her father– then a train ride.  Soon, they are in a terrible place with barbed wire all around, little or no food, no way to clean themselves.  Then the worst thing of all, their mothers are taken away, leaving the children alone with the policemen.  She becomes hardened, scrabbling for food, trying to care for the littlest ones.  The little girl plans, schemes and one day, she escapes, determined to get back to Paris and her brother in the cupboard.  But what will she find there and what will she do then?  Her name is Sarah.

American Julia Jarmond married into a French family and works for a small magazine that caters to American ex pats.  She is assigned to do a story on the Vel’ de Hiv’.  As an American, she knew nothing about the incident that occurred more than 60 years earlier but, as she researches, she is amazed and appalled to find that very few of the French know of it either.  It seemed a great conspiracy had played out so that the French could forget the part they played.  Julia’s research uncovers a secret connection to the horrible round-up of Jewish families. As she digs deeper, shocking truths are uncovered.  Truths that might just cost her everything.

De Rosnay writes the stories of Sarah and Julia in alternating chapters.  Julia tells her story in first person narrative.  Sara’s is told in third person and with a different font.  As the stories get closer and closer, Sarah’s voice is silenced and Julia continues the telling.  Amazingly, for such a sad story, it ends on a hopeful note.

I, like many Americans, had never heard of the Vel’ de Hiv’.  It’s been a very long time since I studied history and most of that focused on America’s part in WW II, as the heroes who discovered and rescued thousands of Jews from concentration camps.  I had no idea of the French complicity in the deaths of so many Jewish families and children…Children!  Tears of frustration and sadness were fought back on nearly every page, as is often the case when I read stories like this.  If you’ve not read the book, it should be on the top of your list.  I have put the movie in my Netflix queue but am not sure I’ll be able to actually watch it unless I have an entire box of tissues handy.

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Grown-up Tales

I rarely read non-young adult fiction because I have too many other books to read for my middle school students but sometimes, a book or an author comes along that I just can’t pass up.  The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman is one such book.  Alice Hoffman is the author of one of my favorite books ever…Green Angel a book about loss and survival.  The Dovekeepers has a similar theme.  It takes place just after the fall of Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago and is told from the point of view of the women caught up in the battles of men. The story is brutal and graphic so, unsuitable for my young readers but highly recommended to all others!

Yael was born from death.  She was cut from her mother’s lifeless body and cast aside as a murderer by her father.  In those days, there were assassins who were invisible until they dealt their death blow to those outside of or who denied the Jewish faith.  He taught his son the art of killing and the son soon surpassed his father.  When the Romans conquered their village, they made a stealthy escape into the desert under the care of a kinsman, a man marked by a narrow escape from a lion.  Their journey was long and difficult but when they reached the desert fortress where her brother was hiding, Yael was carrying a secret.  Revka is the wife of an acclaimed baker whose husband was cut down in a Roman raid.  She, daughter and her son-in-law gathered their young boys and fled to the desert where they found what they thought was a safe haven.  However, it was soon discovered by a small garrison of Roman soldiers who brutally raped and murdered Revka’s daughter in full view of the children.  Bitter and scarred within, they too, found their way to the mighty citadel built by a Roman king.  Shirah found her way to the stronghold with her children because her beloved called to her in her dreams to come to him.  She who knew the secrets of woman passed down from mother to daughter – spells and cures for fever and chills, love and hate – sees the fates of all who are gathered against the ever encroaching army of Rome.  Daily, these women prove their strength, courage and determination to survive and even thrive in the forbidding landscape of the desert fortress called Masada.

Based upon accounts recorded by Josephus and other historians, Alice Hoffman weaves a magical, brutal tale of those who claimed Masada as their own.  They fought the elements and, eventually, the Romans but were so unwilling to be defeated and taken into slavery that they wrought their own destruction.  The Romans found only dead and charred bodies when they finally breached the walls that were unbreakable.  The people had burned their stores, killed their livestock and themselves as a symbol of strength to their people and a symbol of determination to their enemy.  Only five people, 2 women and 3 children, survived the massacre.  This is their story.

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Anthropomorphism

While I’m not a great fan of those stories where animals are the characters (Redwall, The Tale of Despereaux, etc.), I just read the latest offering from the consummate storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy, called The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale and it was wonderful! She and fellow author Randall Wright, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, begin, “He was the best of Toms. He was the worst of toms.”

Skilly lead the rough and tumble life of a street cat.  With ears scarred and tail permanently bent from a lost battle with a door, he stalks the streets of London in search of his favorite fare and it’s not what you might think!  On that fateful afternoon, he finds himself faced with Pinch, truly the worst street cat around.  Pinch warns him off of his new haunt, the Cheshire Cheese Inn, a place sure to be run over with mice.  Skilly saunters off, feigning disinterest but circles back around and finds a way into the inn and into heaven!  It’s warm, it’s cozy, it’s full to overflowing with mice…and CHEESE!  This is Skilly’s dreadful secret.  He is not at all interested in mice.  His true love is cheese. Upon meeting a most unusual mouse, Pip, the two strike a rather odd bargain.  Skilly will make like a great mouser and seem to clear the inn of mice but really, he’ll catch and release them.  In return, the mice will keep him fed in cheese, glorious cheese!  It all works out swimmingly until the day the Adele, the cook’s assistant and notorious mouse-hater, brings in a cruel looking ginger cat named Pinch!  Now, Skilly’s comfy arrangement is in dire jeopardy and he will do almost anything to protect it, even the unthinkable.

What a delightful romp through Dickensian England with occasional appearances of the man himself, as he is a regular at the Cheshire Cheese Inn with many of his writing contemporaries who also make cameo appearances.  In fact, you will be most surprised to find out from where Dickens’ most famous opening lines came.  The animals in this book are extraordinary and there’s a lot going on.  You will learn about the 6 ravens of The Tower of London and how they came to be there as well as many words in the English language that befuddle the average cat but are good words to know.  The authors have included a glossary, in case some of the human readers are also befuddled.  Barry Moser’s lovely ink drawings appear at just the right moment and are so expressive! An interesting aside, The Cheshire Cheese Inn is an actual place and is known far and wide for its exceptional cheeses. Anthropomorphism fans and non-fans alike will enjoy this delightful animal story! And…If you ever get the chance to hear Carmen Agra Deedy do her storytelling thing, I highly recommend that you make haste!  She’s one of the best out there!!!

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Category, Label: Human Nature

I read lots of novels with dystopian themes, as you can see by many of my recent posts.  A dystopian novel is a story in which society, as we know it, has been destroyed by war or other cataclysmic event.  As the survivors work to put things back together, they automatically organize themselves into groups of like-minded people.  For humans, it seems, categorizing equals order and control, which is good.  The opposite of order is chaos which, therefore, must be bad, right?  I’m not so sure about that.  The problem with categories is that there are things, people, even books that defy categorization.  They are put in a separate group because they don’t fit in the traditional ones and, more often than not, they are derided for their difference. The Variant or Divergent group (both titles of dystopian novels I’ve read, by the way) are seen as chaotic or they cause chaos in the newly formed society, whether they actually do or not. Their very existence just doesn’t fit the “natural” order of things.  BUT, if you look into any like-minded group, you are going to find variants or those who diverge from that group’s norm in some small way.

I look at the new fiction books, when they come into the library so that I can label them with genre stickers.  It’s my way of  helping my middle school students separate their books from those intended for older readers.  There are not many books that only have one genre sticker on them.  Most have more than one because they just don’t fit into one genre or category.  I propose that the “natural order” of things is to be divergent or variant…to defy a single category. So, why do we constantly try to mold people into the shape of a particular group and not allow any diversity within that group?  You know the old saying “Two heads are better than one”?  The reason that is so often quoted is because it’s true…the two heads think differently or see the problem differently and can come up with a solution because of that difference!  We were created in different sizes, colors, and shapes with various ideas, thoughts and beliefs.  I believe that we were created to be who we are not who others think we should be.  That’s not to say that there aren’t wrong people or ideas…a serial killer or a rapist are wrong, their ideas are sick and twisted but they are also a very, very small (thankfully) group of people.  Our job here on earth is not to judge, that job belongs to Someone else.  Our job is to accept who we are, who other people are, regardless of the possibility that their way of thinking or living is opposite ours.  Why can’t we all just get along?  Okay, perhaps that a bit naive of me but a litte tolerance will go a long way toward averting the wars and other cataclysmic events that will eventually destroy society as we know it and we’ll have to start all over again…

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